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Analysis-Italian first! Meloni’s nationalists defend cultural identity at risk of irking EU

2023.04.12 07:18

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: General view of the Colosseum next to a subway’s construction sites in Rome, Italy, February 16, 2023. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

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By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s culture wars have begun.

Almost six months after taking office, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government is pushing out bills that promise to promote national identity, defend the traditional family, protect cultural heritage and hold back migrants.

Recent proposals include a bill to safeguard the Italian language and a ban on lab-grown food. The government is also making it harder for same-sex parents to register their children, in a move which drew condemnation from the European Parliament.

Critics say the welter of legislation is aimed at disguising the fact that the coalition is struggling to make headway in more crucial areas, such as utilising European Union post-COVID-19 pandemic funds.

“These ‘identity’ choices can spark tensions with the EU in the long term, especially when it comes to civil rights issues,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a political communication expert at Unimercatorum university.

Last month Brussels froze a 19-billion-euro ($20.76 billion) tranche of the money, requesting clarification on Rome’s efforts to meet the agreed policy targets needed to obtain the transfers.

On civil rights, Meloni vaunts the importance of traditional family values, in a country which already lags behind most of western Europe on LBGT rights.

Government lawmakers say policies to protect heritage were always going to be a key part of their agenda, and Italy has for years undervalued its rich, historic patrimony.

“We do not have diamonds, or big oil and gas resources,” said Fabio Rampelli, a senior member of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.

“Italian mines are made up of culture, gastronomy, language, arts, fashion, history, archaeology and monuments. This is what we can offer to the world, and what we can improve.”

Taking the lead, Rampelli last month put forward a bill proposing fines of up to 100,000 euros ($109,000) for Italian companies and public entities that use foreign terms, most notably English, instead of the national language in their official documents or communication.

The opposition Five Star Movement ridiculed the idea, pointing out that the government itself had added the English term “Made in Italy” to the title of the industry minister when it took office last year.

“Identity messages are meant to tell the electorate that Brothers of Italy will not give up its line,” analyst Panarari said.

‘GREAT IN THE WORLD’

Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida defended the ban on lab-grown food by saying it was incompatible with Italy’s culinary history and potentially dangerous for health.

Meloni herself has called for the creation of a “Made in Italy” high school to teach students the creative and business skills which made the nation “great in the world”, a proposed law presented by her party said.

When Meloni won power last year, there was widespread concern in Europe about her post-fascist political roots, fearing she would follow the authoritarian path trod by her old political friend – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

She has largely defied her critics, avoiding tough confrontation at home and clashes with Brussels, which was a regular target of her fiery rhetoric in previous years

But she has not rowed back on electoral promises to be hard on immigration. One of her first acts was to curb the operations of charity rescue ships in an effort to reduce the time they could spend at sea looking for migrants.

In her autobiography “I am Giorgia”, published in 2021, Meloni compared mass immigration to the forced transfers of populations in the old Soviet Union, aimed at diluting local customs and religions.

“The right wants to preserve these same deep-rooted identities that the left wants to cancel,” she wrote, warning of the dangers of “ethnic substitution” and the dilution of Europe’s Christian culture.

Opinion polls suggest that voters are broadly supportive of the government’s actions, with backing for Brothers of Italy seen at 29% in recent polls, slightly lower than at the start of the year but up from the 26% it scored in the October ballot.

“I believe these are attempts to divert attention away from the real challenges, including the economy, and to lure us into an ideological debate,” said Alessandro Alfieri, a senator with the opposition centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

Other critics on the left accuse the government of being stuck in a defensive pose, wanting time to stand still – a charge the culture minister rejects.

“Being conservative means relying on the sense of history, on tradition to seek the way to the future, it does not mean rejecting change,” Gennaro Sangiuliano told a seminar last week on the construction of an Italian cultural identity.

“It means mastering (change), orienting it to the deep sense of the history of a community.”

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