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Italy’s Meloni is about to make her move as she eyes key EU commission portfolios

In a bid to secure a major role for Italy in Brussels, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is about to go toe to toe and obtain a big portfolio at the European Commission.

According to sources from the Italian government, she is closely coordinating diplomatic action in the EU institutions together with Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.

Few people know Brussels better than Tajani: he is a former commissioner and European Parliament president, a historical member of the European People’s Party (EPP), and a close ally of Silvio Berlusconi, the departed tycoon and Italian PM who was also an MEP.

The cordial political interaction between Meloni and Tajani is a sign that the moderate conservatives of the EPP and the national-right wingers of the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) can work together on something more long-term than the electoral campaign — at least in Italy.

At the moment, nobody at Palazzo Chigi — the premier’s seat in Rome — is openly taking any positions for a second term at the top of the European Commission for Ursula von der Leyen.

For von der Leyen, Meloni’s support could be crucial, but the Italian PM is keeping her cards close at the moment — and Meloni might just be showing everyone in Europe what the art of political bargaining is all about.

What’s at stake for Italy?

Meloni and her Italian ally Tajani are convinced that Italy is entitled to ask more regarding EU institutional appointments. The Italian government aims to obtain a relevant portfolio plus the vice-presidency of the European Commission.

Which portfolio? “A mainly economic one: either the monetary affairs, or competition, or trade,” sources in Rome say.

The Italian government is convinced that the success of the conservative forces in Europe and the personal achievement of Meloni’s far-right party, Fratelli d’Italia or Brothers of Italy, at the European elections earlier in June legitimise Italy’s request for a relevant EU position.

Italy’s Foreign Minister and Forza Italia party leader Antonio Tajani speaks about the results of the European elections in Rome, 10 June 2024

The Italian government is zeroing in on another portfolio: the new position of defence commissioner.

This could become a strategically important piece of the puzzle in Brussels, especially if it deals with defence procurement, representing a massive prize for European arms manufacturers. Weapons production is a big business in Italy, especially for the industrial public sector.

And according to the Italian political and media rumour mills, Elisabetta Belloni could be the perfect candidate for the defence commissioner’s office.

Which cards could Meloni play?

A relative unknown in Brussels, Belloni has been the head of Italian intelligence since the big-tent government of liberal Mario Draghi. In Italy, the intelligence service is managed by external top civil servants, usually diplomats.

In fact, it was Belloni who almost became Italy’s first female head of government after her name was touted by the press as the most likely prime minister after the general election in March 2018. Eventually, Meloni took the title in October 2022.

European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni speaks with Italy’s Finance Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti during a meeting of finance ministers in Brussels, 15 January 2024

Belloni, the sherpa of the recent Italian G7 presidency, worked in the past as a diplomatic adviser of the former prime minister and current European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni. “A junior EU position”, as some Italian sources say, since Gentiloni is one rung under the vice-president, the Latvian Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis.

Belloni represents the state administration, meaning she is in a perfect position to deal with the demands of the public and the industry in terms of all things security.

Aside from Belloni, another option is Roberto Cingolani, a trained physicist at the helm of the Italian arms manufacturing holding, Leonardo. Former Minister of Green Transition in Draghi’s government Roberto Cingolani could also run for the competition portfolio.

Another big name, at least for Italy, includes the current Economy Minister, Giancarlo Giorgetti. Yet, these last options seem to be fading away since Meloni wants her ministers to stay in place to avoid any government reshuffle.

What do the most recent tea leaves say?

Inevitably, the EU’s top jobs have turned into bargaining chips in the post-electoral Squid Game.

Meloni is trying to play the card of Marine Le Pen and balance the role of the Identity and Democracy group amid the coalition negotiations game. The Italian conservative government needs to broaden the platform of the top-jobs negotiations to include talks concerning political groups in parliament.

The new parliament has a clear conservative majority, and from the Italian executive point of view, it is an excellent opportunity for a show-down with the socialists of S&D and the liberals of Renew Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron’s group in the European Parliament.

French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and US President Joe Biden watch a skydiving demonstration at the G7 summit, 14 June 2024

The political conflict among conservatives, liberals and socialists broke out at the recent G7 in Italy, where a polemic on abortion became a casus belli between the French president — struggling at home against the far-right of Marine Le Pen — and the Italian premier, who is eager to take advantage of her electoral victory.

That could be why the relations between Meloni and von der Leyen seem to have lost their warmth.

While Meloni can hardly keep her poker face around Macron, for von der Leyen, the French leader remains key to her calculations, especially if he (unexpectedly) wins the country’s snap parliamentary elections later in June and July.