“It always will be“. With these words spoken on June 23rd 2005, former Prime Minister Tony Blair inaugurated his office during the six-month UK presidency by addressing the European Parliament. He called upon the Parliamentary Chamber to embrace the founding principle of the European Union as a “union of values, of solidarity between nations and people, not just of a common market in which to trade, but of a common political space in which to live as citizens.”

The seemingly indisputable “It always will be“ was made at a time when the European Union saw its biggest enlargement round in 2004, then encompassing 25  Member States. Hard to foresee, at the time, the events that would unfold – often violently and disruptively – in the subsequent decades. From the challenges posed by the Troika to Brexit, to the financial crises and pandemics, to facing conflicts at the Union’s borders. These events have left Europe deeply scarred and transformed, confronting changes that deeply question its future role.

As the elections for the renewal of the European Parliament loom next June, Italy finds itself playing a pivotal position, both in terms of shaping the next European Commission and with regard to the internal balances within the current national Government.

The Italian political context

While the Government’s leadership is currently robust and reflects the post-election stability levels of September 2022, Italy’s economic landscape, on the other hand, is fraught with uncertainties. Economic growth projections for 2024 are lower than expected: a burden on Italy is the general economic slowdown, in particular in the German economy. The high interest rates exacerbate an increasingly unsustainable public debt, constraining domestic and social spending and affecting all fundamental welfare sectors (i.e. health, schooling, services). Additionally, the substantial pension expenditures are at odds with the country’s negative population growth rate, which is even worse than the European average.

Anticipated expectations of the governing coalition for the EU elections

In this context, Giorgia Meloni, the first female Prime Minister and leader of Fratelli d’Italia, views European competition as a way to establish definitive international legitimacy for her role and to position herself as a point of reference for right-wing conservative parties. These parties are gaining strength across Europe and are bound together by an agenda that radically challenges the current approach in Europe on most relevant issues such as the environment, immigration, defence, and the economy.

Despite her ongoing dialogue and collaboration with Ursula von der Leyen, Meloni is not backing down a single inch in building the ECR group positioning within the political arena responsible for appointing the next European Commission. She does so by surgically selecting her moves, as evidenced by the recent strategic move to bring Reconquete, the party led by Eric Zemmour, into the ECR fold. Notably, Reconquete’s leadership includes Marion Maréchal, niece of Marine Le Pen, who herself is an ally of Salvini within the Identity and Democracy group.

Despite the backdrop of the farmers’ protests, marked by tractors marching in Rome, Fratelli d’Italia – with the possibility of its leader becoming the lead candidate in all constituencies – is aiming for an electoral outcome between 27% and 30%. Such a success would significantly bolster seat gains, potentially for the first time seeing a European Parliament  half-occupied by representatives from parties outside the three major centrist parties of the so-called “Grand Coalition.”

Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, is far from the 34% result achieved in the last European election and needs to target a performance that will not challenge his leadership in the party. However, there’s uncertainty regarding whether he can secure the Lega’s position as the largest group in the right-wing bloc in Europe. The potential inclusion of Fidesz, Orban’s party, into the ECR after the election could make it the third largest group, surpassing both Identity and Democracy and Renew Europe.

Forza Italia, the third member of the governing majority, enters its first election without Berlusconi, a leader who wielded significant influence within the EPP, the party which will lead the negotiations for the alliance shaping the next Commission. If Forza Italia achieves a positive result, or even outperforms the Lega, the party led by Antonio Tajanicould asset its influence within the relationship between the EPP and Fratelli d’Italia. However, a decline in support for Forza Italia could potentially prompt the European People’s Party to independently engage in negotiations with Fratelli d’Italia, thus rendering Forza Italia irrelevant.

What the opposition expects

On the opposition front, the Democratic Party aims to secure 20% of the vote, which would solidify its position as the primary party within a weak and divided opposition. The success of this goal will hinge largely on the strategy that Secretary Elly Schlein intends to play, which, currently remains unclear. In contrast to the idea of directly challenging Giorgia Meloni as the leading candidate in all constituencies, an alternative approach is emerging. This involves fielding representative figures, relinquishing the role of leading candidates in key regions such as  Emergency’s Cecilia Strada in the North, former President of Lazio Region Nicola Zingaretti in the center, and Cities Association’s President Antonio De Caro in the South.

The 5 Star Movement, despite lacking strategic consensus pull in European elections, has the potential to elect between 10 and 12 representatives. There is consideration for the movement to join the Green group, thus bolstering the presence of the parties externally to the majority in the European Parliament.

A tricky post-EU elections scenario unfolds

The outcomes of the European elections are poised to have repercussions at the national level as well.

With respect to the majority, the likelihood of a post-election government reshuffle is gaining momentum. This reshuffle would recalibrate power dynamics and immediately compel Meloni to decide her stance in shaping the European Commission. Indeed, the presence of a prominent Italian Commissioner holds significant importance for a country grappling with substantial public debt on the one hand, to be managed within the new parameters of the Stability Pact, and on the other hand the responsibility of securing and utilizing all funds allocated for the Recovery Plan. These are two dossiers that refer directly to Economy and Finance Minister Giorgetti and EU Policy Minister Raffaele Fitto.

Concerning the opposition, the election will serve as a test for Schlein’s leadership, which faces internal pressures advocating for a new – or perhaps more traditional – direction. However, the party’s stance on potential alliances capable of competing for control of the country’s government remains unclear.

The engines are revving up as candidates’ lists are slated for finalization by the end of April, and then the election campaign will officially start. Yet, for experts like us who are tasked with analyzing scenarios by paying particular attention to the impact of policies on businesses and associations, attention is squarely fixed on the post-election period. What policy agenda will the future Parliament and Commission adopt for the new term?

The only certainty is that we anticipate a significant change, which is bound to ignite debate and confrontation. This calls upon us to identify effective spaces of intervention to promote legitimate demands and thereby contribute to the shaping and evolution of the future European policies.