ROME – Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, who is poised to become Italy’s next premier, vowed Saturday to put national interests first in tackling soaring energy costs as she made her first public outing since her Brothers of Italy party won the most votes in the country's national election.
Meloni's address to farmers and producers at an agricultural fair in Milan came as Russia's Gazprom utility informed gas giant ENI that no natural gas would be delivered to Italy on Saturday, further tightening supplies as Moscow seeks to pressure Europe in its war against Ukraine.
Meloni has strongly backed Ukraine, and one of her first post-victory tweets was in response to a congratulatory note from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “You know that you can count on our loyal support for the cause of freedom of Ukrainian people!” she wrote on Sept. 27.
Her outing Saturday to the Coldiretti farm lobby fair marked her emergence from a week of closed-door meetings with allies and the outgoing government following the Sept. 25 vote that is poised to give Italy its first far-right-led government since World War II.
Much of those talks concerned high energy costs and the EU's response after Germany announced it would spend up to 200 billion euros ($195 billion) helping consumers and businesses cope while refusing to back a European price cap on gas, as Italy and other countries have sought.
Meloni said if her government takes a similar action, it shouldn't be seen as some populist, nationalist reaction but rather a “lucid” strategy to “defend national interests to arrive at common solutions.”
“Italy’s posture must return to start off with the defense of its national interests to find common solutions,” Meloni told the farmers in Milan.
Since invading Ukraine in February, Russia has cut back supplies of natural gas sent to Europe to heat homes, generate electricity and run factories. On Saturday, Gazprom informed ENI that it could not confirm any gas deliveries Saturday via the pipeline through Austria, ENI reported. Italian news reports said the cutoff wouldn't have a significant impact, given that Italy has greatly reduced its reliance on Russian gas since the war began.
Meloni vowed to protect Italian industry and agriculture from the effects of rising energy prices, as well as the residual effects of the coronavirus pandemic and a record heat wave this summer that destroyed billions in crops.
Meloni’s party, which has its roots in a neo-fascist movement, is expected to be the largest party in a center-right Italian coalition government along with the right-wing League party of Matteo Salvini and the center-right Forza Italia of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Meloni, who would be the first woman to serve as Italy's premier, told the farmers a key priority was to protect the “Made in Italy” agricultural brand and its supply chain to reduce dependence on imports, while also keeping government interference to a minimum.
“We said that our compass would be a very simple concept: Don’t disturb those who want to produce, don’t disturb those who want to create wealth, don’t disturb those who produce work, don’t disturb those who want to hire,” she said of her pro-industry stance.
Before arriving at the Coldiretti forum, Meloni called on Berlusconi at his Arcore estate outside Milan, for their first post-election meeting. A joint statement said the meeting took place “in a climate of great collaboration and unity of intent,” especially to confront high energy prices.
Italy has spent 60 billion euros since last year to ease the pain of higher energy prices for households and industry. But Coldiretti says that aid to farmers has been mostly tax credits and not direct help with electricity bills, which have gone up 500% since last year, or fertilizer costs, which are up 170%.
The outgoing government of Premier Mario Draghi has refused to borrow more money for a deeper aid package, citing Italy’s high debt level. Italy has pressed for a European price cap on Russian natural gas but so far has been unable to persuade the rest of the EU's 27 nations to go along.
Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.