At a time when Europe is crying out for strong political leadership, the success Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has achieved in stabilising the country’s notoriously turbulent politics has raised the prospect of her fulfilling a broader leadership role in European affairs.
Ever since former German Chancellor Angela Merkel retired from frontline politics in 2021, the hunt has been on to find a European leader who could play a decisive role in world affairs.
During the 16 years Merkel was in power, the German Chancellor became the dominant voice in European politics, the “go-to” figure that other world leaders gravitated towards whenever a major global crisis loomed.
While Merkel’s judgement was not always infallible — her handling of the Syrian refugee crisis seriously undermined her political standing — she was regarded as a wise and sound leader whose judgement was highly valued, whether it was dealing with the fallout from the 2008 financial crash or containing the expansionist designs of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Merkel was regarded as a wise and sound leader whose judgement was highly valued, whether it was dealing with the fallout from the 2008 financial crash or containing the expansionist designs of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
EU leadership vacuum
It is a mark of the dominant role she played in European politics that no suitable candidate has yet emerged to take her place. The leaders of Germany and France, the two countries that generally dominate Europe's political landscape, have so far failed to fill the void created by Merkel's retirement.
The hesitancy shown by Olaf Scholtz, Merkel's successor as Chancellor, in responding to the Ukraine crisis has meant that Berlin has often found itself at odds with its European allies, as illustrated by the recent dispute about supplying the Ukrainian forces with Western tanks.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron's attempts to lead diplomatic efforts to improve ties with Russia have backfired spectacularly as, rather than seeking a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin has simply responded to Macron's overtures by intensifying his military offensive against the Ukrainian people.
The only European leader who has fulfilled a genuine leadership role on the Ukraine issue is Boris Johnson, but his efforts came to an abrupt end when he was unceremoniously removed from office last summer.
With European politicians with serious leadership credentials in short supply, the unexpected emergence of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni as the dominant force in Italian politics has prompted speculation that she might emerge as the candidate best placed to take on Merkel's leadership role.
Meloni's emergence as a key player in European politics was reflected earlier this month when she travelled to India and the United Arab Emirates to revitalise ties with Rome. In New Delhi, where she met with Indian premier Narendra Modi, Meloni spoke of her desire to rebuild defence ties between the two countries, with the two countries agreeing to hold joint military exercises and training.
Meloni's efforts to repair ties with the UAE were reflected in the announcement that Italian oil and gas group Eni is to cooperate with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) on a number of energy transition projects.
After a meeting with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Meloni said reciprocal trust was being re-established for future cooperation in areas ranging from energy to defence.
"Discussions ... went very, very well and we're going back to a strategic partnership," Meloni told reporters in Abu Dhabi. "Italy historically had very strong relations with the UAE which in recent years experienced serious difficulties."
Meloni's pragmatic approach to dealing with erstwhile allies is similar to the attitude she has adopted in her efforts to bring a welcome degree of stability to Italian politics since becoming the country's first female prime minister last year.
Giorgia Meloni won a clear majority in the Italian election, setting herself up to become the country's first female prime minister at the head of the most right-wing government since World War II.
Until her surprise victory in last September's general election, the 46-year-old Meloni was a relatively fringe figure in Italian politics. Having begun her political career as a teenager, when she was an activist with a party said to have neo-fascist links, she has enjoyed a meteoric rise to power through her leadership of the right-of-centre Fratelli d'Italia, or Brothers of Italy, party.
Although she led her party for 10 years, her experience in government was limited to her brief spell as Italy's youngest minister in the Berlusconi government from 2008-11. After that she became an isolated figure on the Italian political scene after the Brothers of Italy became one of the few Italian parties not to join former Italian prime minister Mario Draghi's national unity government.
While this move meant her party was effectively consigned to the political wilderness, it became an important factor when the Draghi government collapsed after the coalition was consumed by infighting.
As a result, the Brothers of Italy suddenly found themselves becoming a dominant force in Italian politics after they won 26 per cent of the vote, compared with the 4.3 per cent they had polled four years earlier.
This placed Meloni in a strong position to form a new government, which she achieved by establishing a new coalition with the far-right Lega led by Matteo Salvini as well as supporters of centre-right of ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
"Italians have sent a clear message in favour of a right-wing government led by Brothers of Italy," Meloni declared after her election win.
Meloni's ability to bring a degree of political stability to Italy has been greatly helped by the failure of opposition left-wing parties to form a viable alternative coalition.
The post-communist Democratic party, which came second in last year's election with 19 per cent of the vote, is currently polling just 16 per cent, whereas the popularity of Brothers of Italy continues to grow, with recent polls indicating it has now risen to 31 per cent.
Meloni's popularity has enabled her to pursue her right-wing agenda, while at the same time keeping her temperamental coalition partners in their place.
While many in Europe have denounced Meloni as nurturing fascist tendencies, she portrays herself more as a centre-right politician in the same tradition as Britain's Conservatives and America's Republicans.
Her no-nonsense anti-woke agenda, where she has little sympathy for trans rights and upholds the values of traditional family life, has proved popular with Italian voters.
While many in Europe have denounced Meloni as nurturing fascist tendencies, she portrays herself more as a centre-right politician. Her no-nonsense anti-woke agenda, where she has little sympathy for trans rights and upholds the values of traditional family life, has proved popular with Italian voters.
Her political philosophy is best summed up by comments she made at a campaign rally in Rome three years ago when she declared, "I am Giorgia. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am Italian. I am Christian...when we no longer have an identity, when we no longer have roots, we won't have a conscience anymore, and we won't be capable of defending our rights."
More conciliatory tone
Meloni's rise to power has seen a significant change in her political outlook.
Once regarded as a far-right firebrand who advocated pulling Italy out of the eurozone and opposing sanctions on Moscow after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, she now adopts a more conciliatory tone towards the European Union, not least because the Italian economy relies heavily on the generous bailouts it continues to receive from Brussels.
Even so, she advocates undertaking fundamental reforms of the EU structure, reducing the influence of Brussels while strengthening the independence of member states.
She has also adopted a harsher line on Russia following last year's invasion of Ukraine — an approach that has placed her at odds with key coalition partners, such as Berlusconi.
Prior to her recent visit to Kyiv, Meloni had to contend with an extraordinary outburst from Berlusconi, an old friend of Putin, who claimed that that if he were still Italy's prime minister he would never go to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky because his attacks on Donbas had been ultimately responsible for the devastation in Ukraine.
It was a measure of Meloni's powerful position within the ruling coalition that she was able to overcome Berlusconi's comment, and instead made a personal pledge to the Ukrainian leader that Italy would back him with arms "until the end".
Another indication that Meloni is not afraid to back her own judgement can be seen in her approach to Italy's long-running migrant crisis, where she has initiated firm action to halt the flow of immigrants from North Africa to southern Italy by impeding the ability of humanitarian ships to dock at Italian ports and drawing up measures to regulate groups that operate such vessels.
It is still early days in the Meloni premiership, but there are already suggestions that, having brought a degree of stability to Italy's fractious political landscape, the new Italian leader has the potential to become an influential figure in global affairs, one that could ultimately provide Europe with the dynamic leadership it desperately needs.