Giorgia Meloni is a known known in Italy. She has spent her entire life in politics, starting when she joined the Italian Social Movement, the successor party to Mussolini’s Fascists, formed in 1946, at the age of 15. She became a rising star within the party as it changed names to National Alliance and then Brothers of Italy, and served as youth minister under centre-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from 2008 to 2011.
Berlusconi will now join Meloni’s coalition as a minority partner, along with Matteo Salvini from the far-right Lega party. Salvini too is a known known, having served as interior minister from 2018 to 2019. Although far-right parties have been part of governing coalitions in Italy several times over the past 70 years, this is the first time they will make up the majority of the coalition, and hold the premiership, since the Second World War, and although much is known about Meloni and Salvini’s views on migration, religion and culture war issues, less is know about how they may position themselves on energy policy.
The current energy crisis meant that the issue received a lot of attention during the electoral campaign. Often times energy policy seemed to be made on the hoof, shaped by the crisis. Nevertheless, we have a few clues about what the expected incoming government – which still needs to be confirmed – has in store when it comes to energy.
Focus on nuclear and gas
During the campaign, all three leaders of the incoming coalition parties focused on nuclear power as the way to give Italy more energy independence and reduce dependence on Russian gas – which has been increasing since Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Like the UK, Italy phased out nuclear power years ago as a result of a referendum in 1987 following the Chernobyl disaster, reconfirmed in another referendum in 2011 after Fukushima.
Salvini said in August: “Italy is the only one of the big countries in the world that says no to nuclear power out of ideology, not science.” Lega leader Matteo Salvini said: “Within seven years – the time it takes to build a nuclear power plant – we could produce energy at a lower cost than today.”
It is not clear whether Salvini thinks Germany’s phase-out of nuclear power is a result of science, while Italy’s is a result of ideology. Nevertheless, his comments were echoed by Berlusconi who said during the campaign that nuclear power can provide Italy with “clean and safe energy in large quantities in the future”.
The centre-left Democratic Party, which came second in the election just behind Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, strongly opposes nuclear power and says money should instead be invested in renewables. The party’s electoral programme said nuclear power is not a sensible way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the plants could not be constructed in time to meet the EU target of a 55% emissions reduction by 2030. It also said concerns over what to do with nuclear waste have not been satisfactorily answered. It proposed a national plan for renewables and energy efficiency with a goal of installing 85GW more renewables capacity by 2030, and reorganising Italy’s electricity grid so it can handle 100% renewable electricity. The right-wing coalition has set no goal for renewables beyond what is required under EU law.
Both the left and the right called for new sources of natural gas during the campaign in order to reduce energy dependence on Russia. Italy received 40% of its imported gas from Russia before the war in Ukraine, a figure reduced to 25% by the summer and falling fast as Russia cuts gas supplies.
All three parties in the right-wing coalition have called for increased exploration and production of natural gas in Italy. The left was more hesitant about domestic drilling but wanted massive investment in the rapid construction of regasification plants for imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), something also embraced by the right. However, the left wanted a guarantee that these plants would be temporary and shut down by 2050 at the latest, so as not to cause fossil fuel lock-in. The right wants no such time limit. Either way, new LNG plants will come too late to make a difference this winter.
Will Meloni play ball?
The big question is whether Meloni, who was Eurosceptic in the past but softened her rhetoric during the campaign, will challenge EU law. In order to receive the €200bn in EU funds Italy was allotted in an EU post-Covid recovery package, Italy must adhere to a strict set of conditions, including ring-fencing 37% of the money for climate action. Meloni said during the campaign that she wants to renegotiate the conditions for receiving the money, including the ring-fencing. The European Commission has already said this is a non-starter, setting up a possible clash between the new Italian government and the Commission in the coming months.
“Now the focus is on Giorgia Meloni and her European policy,” says Arturo Carvelli, head of the Rome office for the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. “She can continue to align with Orbán or take a more institutional and moderate path, and pursue a conservative political line in a more traditional sense.”
Meloni’s party heads the European Conservatives and Reformists, a pan-European political grouping founded in 2009 by the British Conservatives and Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party, in the European Parliament. Poland has been the biggest obstacle to EU climate laws over the past 15 years, sometimes supported by like-minded countries in eastern Europe. If Italy were to join these eastern European countries in blocking climate action, together they would have a significant number of votes in the EU Council, perhaps a blocking majority.
Meloni has, like many right-wing leaders in the West, railed against wind turbines and said that renewable energy could hurt Italy’s energy availability. At the same time, her campaign paid some lip service to the need for renewables to increase energy security, without going into much detail. However, Meloni will be under intense pressure to act, and supporting renewables could open her to criticism – especially from a dominant right-wing media that has blamed renewables for the current high energy prices. Italian power regulator ARERA warned last week that electricity prices are set to rise a further 59% in the coming months. Gas bills in Italy have already risen by 93% over the past two years.
The question is whether Meloni will support EU action to reign in prices. Until she can form a coalition agreement, the caretaker government of Mario Draghi is still in office. That government signed off on unprecedented EU energy market intervention at an emergency meeting of energy ministers in Brussels on 30 September, including a mandatory 5% electricity use cut during peak hours and a windfall tax on excess energy company profits with a plan to redistribute them to struggling households. Draghi’s government supports the further drastic action of capping the price of all gas imports, which the Commission is under pressure to propose before a summit of EU leaders in Prague in the Czech Republic on 7 October. Meloni’s position on this is unclear, although she seems likely to support it.
Despite the clues to date, many aspects of Meloni’s energy positions remain unclear. It looks likely that Italy’s new right-wing government will pursue a pro-fossil fuels policy that is unfriendly toward renewables. However, the big question is whether Meloni decides to ally with Poland, Hungary and others to pick apart existing EU climate law. She has already said she wants to work with Europe’s other right-wing leaders to pick apart EU migration law. The energy sector could be a pan-European far-right alliance’s next target.