Giorgia Meloni’s arch-conservative social agenda raises rights fears in Italy

Liberals worry that new government will restrict social freedoms and stoke animosity

Cartoon character Peppa Pig made a brief appearance during Italy’s recent elections, when a senior leader of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy demanded that an episode showing a young pig with two mothers be banned.

Federico Mollicone, who oversees cultural affairs for the hard-right party, called the cartoon “unacceptable” and said Italy, which has civil unions but does not recognise same-sex marriage, should not permit such “gender indoctrination” of children.

To many in Italy, the seemingly silly incident was a telling sign of what could be to come as Meloni, expected to lead Italy’s first far-right government since the second World War, seeks to put “the defence of the natural family” at the centre of her new government.

Liberals fear that her arch-conservative government will roll back the clock, curb individual rights and social freedoms, and stoke animosity towards those who do not fit neatly into traditional Italian family models.

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Activists for the LGBT community, whose rights already lag behind those in other western democracies, worry that even their fragile social gains will be eroded.

“Certainly, the climate can become nastier,” said Gabriele Piazzoni, director-general of Arcigay, Italy’s largest LGBT+ rights association. “A far-right government with its illiberal rhetoric might embolden homophobes that so far have been restrained.”

Italy is still a deeply traditional society that has experienced only fitful progress towards equal rights for marginalised groups, reproductive rights and the inclusion of Italians from different ethnic backgrounds into the mainstream.

Now, many expect efforts to create a more inclusive society to come to a standstill, as Meloni, and her right-wing populist ally Matteo Salvini, the League leader, take power.

“We are fully in the politics of cultural backlash by right-wing political parties,” said Pietro Castelli, a professor at Université Libre de Bruxelles. “Her idea is that Italy is a Christian society, must remain a Christian – Catholic – society and this contamination by foreign cultures should be combatted.”

Emiliana De Blasio, a sociologist at Rome’s Luiss University, said with the far-right in power, there would be no discussion on “improvements on human rights here in Italy”.

In her own life, Meloni has walked an unconventional path, raised by a single mother and not marrying the father of her own young daughter.

But she is a zealous advocate for a conservative social agenda, including defence of the “natural family”, raising Italy’s domestic birth rate, banning surrogacy – especially for same-sex male couples – and stopping the flow of migrants into Italy.

At a congress organised by a US-based anti-abortion organisation three years ago, she called Europe’s low birth rate the continent’s “biggest problem” and urged the state to “incentivise” childbirth within marriage.

Alessia Crocini, president of Rainbow Families, an association of same-sex parents in Italy, said her members were frightened for the future of their children.

“It’s not reassuring to know that the political force in power has always been hostile to you, and considers you not worthy of the same rights as other families.”

Since the vote, Italian women’s right activists have marched in Rome, Milan and other cities to protect the right to a safe abortion, which they fear will be attacked.

“There will be a psychological battle against women,” said Silvana Agatone, founder of Laiga 194, an association of doctors committed to upholding abortion rights. “I worry so much about the future.”

Meloni has insisted she will not touch the 1978 law that legalised abortion. But Agatone warned the government could use other tools to impede abortion access in a country where terminating a pregnancy already requires long waiting periods, and navigating a complicated bureaucratic maze.

About two-thirds of Italy’s obstetricians and gynaecologists currently refuse to provide abortion, while only 63 per cent of public hospitals permit the procedures in their facilities.

Abortion providers often face hostility from colleagues, while some public hospitals already permit pro-life activists to interact with women seeking to terminate pregnancies to press them to change their minds.

“When you feel in the air that it is dangerous to provide abortion, I don’t know how our doctors will do it,” Agatone said. “The law will be on paper, nothing else,” she said.

For those working to help migrants in Italy, the intense discourse around the need to stop illegal entry by small boats from Africa will encourage hostility towards all of Italy’s ethnic and religious minorities, regardless of their legal status.

“When far right, xenophobic parties rule, the way they talk on television about migration, people feel more free to say things about migration that they normally wouldn’t have said,” noted Andrea Costa, president of the Baobab Experience, a humanitarian group that helps migrants in Italy.

“It’s not only the government; it’s the entire society that gets more racist. It’s going to be difficult even for people who already live here, who are already more or less integrated into the country.”

Luiss University’s De Blasio said Italy’s economic fragility and dependence on European financial support in the coming years could restrict the new government’s space to directly push controversial policy rollbacks.

“I don’t think they [Meloni and other far-right leaders] are going to be as they used to be when they were in opposition,” she added.

“The economic crisis we’re going to face is going to be hard, but we can survive if we’re welcome in the international community.”

Not violating human rights would help keep Brussels onside, she said.

But Castelli at Université Libre de Bruxelles said there was little doubt that far-right activists espousing a range of causes would seize the opportunity of Meloni’s government to try to press their own narratives on a range of Italian public issues.

“For the pro-life movement, extremists and radical anti-immigrant groups, it’s going to be an important opportunity.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022