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Meloni takes over as Italian PM, urges fractious allies to unite

New government is most far-right in Italy since World War II

By AFP - Oct 23,2022 - Last updated at Oct 23,2022

Italy's new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni holds the Cabinet minister bell handed to her by Italy's outgoing prime minister during a handover ceremony at Palazzo Chigi in Rome on Sunday (AFP photo)

ROME — Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni took office on Sunday as Italy's first woman prime minister, calling on the fractious members of her coalition government to unite as they face looming crises on several fronts.

Four weeks after her post-fascist Brothers of Italy party won general elections, Meloni formally assumed office in a handover ceremony with outgoing premier Mario Draghi, before gathering her Cabinet.

"We must be united, there are emergencies the country is facing. We have to work together," the 45-year-old told her ministers during their first meeting, lasting half an hour.

The new government is the most far-right in Italy since World War II, and takes power at a time of soaring inflation and an energy crisis linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

It has already been rocked by tensions within Meloni's coalition, which includes Matteo Salvini's far-right League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia.

Meloni was forced this week to repeat her unwavering support for Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia after Berlusconi was recorded defending President Vladimir Putin.

The prospect of a Eurosceptic, populist government taking the helm of the eurozone's third largest economy has already sparked concern among Italy's allies, particularly in the EU.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Saturday she had a "good first call" with Meloni, saying she looked forward to "constructive cooperation".

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany said he wanted to keep "working closely together with Italy in EU, NATO and G7" — a sentiment Meloni reflected in responses to congratulatory messages on Twitter.

A spokesman for French President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile left open Sunday the possibility that he will be the first foreign leader to meet Meloni, as he headed to Rome and the Vatican for a pre-planned visit.

 

Reassuring ministers 

 

Meloni and her 24 ministers were sworn in on Saturday before President Sergio Mattarella and she declared her intention to get “straight to work”.

On Sunday Meloni joined outgoing prime minister Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief who took over in February 2021, for a formal handover of power.

They held private talks for almost 90 minutes before a smiling Draghi symbolically handed to Meloni a small bell used in Cabinet debates, which she, grinning, rang a few times for the television cameras.

As a teenage activist, Meloni praised late dictator Benito Mussolini, but insists fascism is history and has transformed her party from a marginal group of radicals to a national force.

Brothers of Italy won just four percent of the vote in 2018 elections, but secured a 26 per cent in the September 25 poll.

During 18 months as the only real opposition to Draghi’s national unity government, Meloni swept up disillusioned voters, presenting herself as a straight-talking defender of traditional values and Italy’s national interests.

But her ministerial experience is limited to three years as youth minister under Berlusconi’s 2008-2011 government, while her party has never held power.

In an attempt to reassure investors that Italy’s debt-laden economy was safe in her hands, Meloni has appointed Giancarlo Giorgetti as economy minister.

Giorgetti, who served as minister of economic development under Draghi, is considered one of the more moderate, pro-Europe members of Salvini’s League.

Draghi’s energy minister, Roberto Cingolani, will stay on as government adviser as Italy tries to wean itself off Russian gas, reports said.

 

Coalition tensions 

 

Meloni’s party no longer wants Italy to leave the EU’s single currency but remains strongly Eurosceptic, as is the League, which won 9 per cent in the elections.

However, she named committed European Antonio Tajani, a former president of the European Parliament who co-founded Forza Italia with Berlusconi, as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

Salvini will serve as deputy prime minister and minister of infrastructure and transport.

Like Berlusconi, Salvini is a long-time fan of Putin and has criticised Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

On Saturday Meloni again affirmed her desire to work with NATO, which she described as “more than a military alliance: A bulwark of common values we’ll never stop standing for”.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and US President Joe Biden sent their congratulations, as did Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.

The tensions with her allies reinforce doubts as to how long she can keep her coalition together, in a country that has had almost 70 governments since 1946.

Pope Francis noted the start of the new government in his weekly Angelus Sunday, offering his prayers for “unity and peace in Italy”.

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