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ROME – As Italian politician Giorgia Meloni settles into her new role as Italy’s first-ever female prime minister, the country’s bishops have urged her and the new government she formed to prioritize key national challenges in collaboration with Europe as a whole.
Head of Italy’s rightwing Brothers of Italy party, Meloni was officially sworn into office Sunday along with her 24 newly appointed ministers by Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Later that evening, she met with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is on an official state visit to Italy, and is scheduled to meet Pope Francis Monday
Meloni, who some observers fear could weaken the European Union through her party’s Euroscepticism on issues such as budget and foreign policy, after her post-fascist party overwhelmingly won general elections last month, setting Italy up for potential shifts in policy that are dramatically opposed to her predecessor, Italian banker Mario Draghi.
In a statement congratulating Meloni for her swearing-in, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna and president of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), said the moment marked “a historical page for our country: The new government is first led by a woman in the role of Prime Minister.”
He reminded her of previous appeals on behalf of CEI in the wake of her victory in the general elections for political leaders to carry out their mandates “at the service of everyone” according to the vision Pope Francis laid out in his 2020 social encyclical Fratelli Tutti, “and the political love it indicates.”
“The challenges are great,” Zuppi said, and pointed to several areas he believes ought to be key priorities for the new government as they begin their work, such as increased poverty rates in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; the so-called “demographic winter” of Italy’s abysmally low birth rate; and care for the elderly.
Zuppi also flagged significant gaps in development between different areas of the country, especially between north and south, and he also pointed to the “ecological transition” and the ongoing energy crisis as major areas of concern.
In addition, he said the lack of jobs, especially for young people, and the “welcome and integration of migrants” ought to be top priorities, as well as “the streamlining of bureaucratic procedures” and reforms to the country’s “democratic organization” and electoral law.
Yet above all of these challenges, Zuppi said, “looms the tragedy of the ongoing war, which requires the effort of everyone, in full harmony with Europe, in the unavoidable and urgent search for a right path that can finally lead to peace.”
Pope Francis himself acknowledged Meloni’s swearing-in, asking pilgrims present for his Sunday Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square to pray “for the unity and peace of Italy” as the new government takes the reigns.
As she steps into office, Meloni faces a number of immediate challenges, as she and her ministers must now draft a new budget and rollout a new tax plan, in addition to overseeing the ecological transition already underway.
Recognized as Italy’s most right-wing and Eurosceptic government since the Second World War, Meloni’s coalition could reverse Draghi’s course on Italy’s COVID-recovery plans and its response to the Russia-Ukraine war, and its negative consequences on energy prices and inflation.
While many decisions within the European Union have been made unanimously by all member states over the past year and a half, such as the bloc’s budget and foreign policy, including sanctions, some observers expect more vetoes from Meloni, potentially turning Italy into less of a team player and a country instead out to secure its own interests.
One major point of contention could be the recovery plan Draghi negotiated with Brussels, which requires Italy to carry out reforms of its administration and justice system in order to access €200 billion ($196.5 billion) in EU funding.
While Draghi joined many other EU states in taking a hardline against Russia following its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, it is unclear what Meloni’s own policies will be in terms of foreign policy and sanctions against Russia.
In the past, Meloni has indicated she might take a softer approach to engagement with Russia, preferring engagement over tightening punitive measures like sanctions, however, last month she used strong language against Russia, saying its annexation of four Ukrainian regions has “no legal and political value.”
In a statement, she said Russian President Vladimir Putin “once again demonstrates his Soviet-style, neo-imperialist vision that threatens the security of the entire European continent.”
She said the “sham referendums held during a violent military occupation have no legal or political value,” and and called for a strong and unified response from Western countries in response to Russia’s actions.
Meloni also assured of her full support for Kyiv after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy congratulated her for the electoral victory last month.
Migration will be another hot-button issue and possible point of contention between Meloni and the Italian bishops, who have vocally advocated for the welcome and care of migrants and refugees, whereas Meloni has backed hardline policies such as so-called “pushbacks” of migrant-laden vessels and naval blockades making it impossible for these ships to dock in Italy.
In his message, Zuppi wished the new government well in their work and signaled that the bishops and the Catholic Church in Italy as a whole would be an active interlocutor.
He assured them that the church in Italy, “respecting and distinguishing between orders and roles,” will be a constant source of “constructive dialogue inspired solely by the desire to contribute to the pursuit of the common good of the country and the protection of the inviolable rights of the person and the community.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen