Former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in his home.Foto: Francesco Rucci / Contrasto / DER SPIEGEL
https://www.spiegel.de-Romano Prodi is worried about the future of Italy and the EU after the election victory of post-fascist Giorgia Meloni. In an interview, he warns of a Rome-Budapest axis and explains how best to deal with the right wing.
Romano Prodi was born on Aug. 9, 1939, in the northern Italian town of Scandiano. A trained economist, Prodi was Italian prime minister twice, from 1996 to 1998 and from 2006 to 2008. From 1999 to 2004, he was president of the European Commission. During his tenure, he presided over the accession negotiations and acceptance of 10 new EU member states.
Romano Prodi receives his guests from DER SPIEGEL in his split-level apartment in the heart of Bologna. The shelves display photos of him with some of his contemporaries, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. At one point, the Anthem of Europe rings out, Prodi’s ring tone on his mobile phone.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Prodi, did Giorgia Meloni’s election victory come as a surprise to you?
Prodi: No. The surveys made it rather clear. And Meloni isn’t a completely new phenomenon. She is one of these “rising stars.” We’ve had plenty of them in Italian politics: Renzi, Salvini, Conte and the Five Star Movement.
DER SPIEGEL: their fall was just as quick as their rise. Will it be the same for Meloni?
Prodi: That is difficult to say. She has a solid majority in parliament. We have a fundamental problem in Italian politics: In contrast to Germany, parties here aren’t rooted in society. There are no stable local structures and party conferences are rare, if they are held at all. And Italians vote with their hearts, not with their heads. Which is why they keep falling for supposed up-and-comers.
DER SPIEGEL: Meloni has been labeled as a right-wing extremist, as a populist and as a post-fascist. She refers to herself as conservative. Which description do you feel is most accurate?
Prodi: Certainly not conservative. During the campaign, she managed to conceal where she comes from and who her followers are. She ran the campaign on her own, as though she was alone. But her party allies from the Brothers of Italy party are now in parliament. She presents herself as a wife and a mother. If you only look at her speeches, then Matteo Salvini is further to the right than she is. But when you look at the political tradition from which she comes, it causes me great concern.
DER SPIEGEL: Is Meloni a danger to Italian democracy?
Prodi: That is certainly possible, yes. At least on the medium term. She remained intentionally vague when it comes to replacing the parliamentary democracy with a presidential system. I could imagine her attempting to amend the constitution, but to do so, she either needs a two-thirds majority in parliament, which she doesn’t have, or she must hold a referendum, which she would likely lose at the moment.
DER SPIEGEL: Meloni says that governing Italy is like raising a child. What will change for minorities in the country, for LGBTQ people and for migrants?
Prodi: Meloni is a woman with many different faces. During the campaign, she continually insisted that minorities had nothing to fear and that women’s rights would not be restricted. But her slogan, “God, Family, Fatherland”? That is one-to-one Mussolini. Meloni won’t be able to do whatever she wants. Italy is still a stable democracy. We are much closer to France and Germany than we are to Hungary.
DER SPIEGEL: And yet, the majority of Italian voters opted for a political party with roots in fascism.
“The party system doesn’t work the way it is supposed to. That makes Italy vulnerable to cults of personality and instability.”
Prodi: If there were large and sudden violations of fundamental rights, the protests would be enormous, I am convinced of that. What scares me are gradual shifts, that Meloni will shift the parameters step-by-step. Just as happened in Hungary. (Prime Minister Viktor) Orbán went after the central bank, the judiciary and the media.
DER SPIEGEL: The campaign was marked by aggression and campaigns of hate. Why is Italy so divided?
Prodi: The division didn’t start with this election. The party system doesn’t work the way it is supposed to. That makes Italy vulnerable to cults of personality and instability. I can still remember making my inaugural visit to Bonn after being elected prime minister in 1996 and being asked by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl when the next one would follow.
DER SPIEGEL: Italy has had 30 heads of government since the end of World War II.
Prodi: As such, I find everything taking place in Italy right now to be disconcerting, but it is also familiar.
DER SPIEGEL: As head of the Social Democrats, you had plenty of interactions with Silvio Berlusconi, whom people say paved the way for populism in European politics.
Prodi: Berlusconi is an unbelievably deft salesman. You sit with him for five minutes and he’ll propose a deal.
DER SPIEGEL: Berlusconi turned 86 last week. He has been through innumerable scandals, accusations of corruption and “bunga bunga” parties. Yet he and his party, Forza Italia, will likely again be in the government under Meloni. How is that possible?
Prodi: Berlusconi controls a fantastic media machine. Half of Italian television belongs to him. He has a sense of his rivals’ weaknesses that is second to none. And yet his power is only a fraction of what it once was. Forza Italia has declined to just 8 percent.
DER SPIEGEL: You have defeated Berlusconi in elections. What can be learned from that when it comes to dealing with right-wing populists today?
Prodi: You have to assemble a coalition if you want to defeat the right. You must agree on a small number of fundamentals and then stick together. I spent an entire year traveling through the country back then and talked with thousands of people.
DER SPIEGEL: In this most recent election, your successor as head of the Social Democrats, Enrico Letta, didn’t manage to emulate your success.
Prodi: I have high esteem for Letta. He was my student. And Carlo Calenda (eds. note: the head of the left-wing liberal party Azione) is a friend of mine. And yet I still don’t understand what went wrong. Letta and Calenda had actually agreed to form an alliance, but it only survived for just a few hours. The leftist camp received more votes in the election than the right, and yet Meloni can now govern with an absolute majority because the left-wing parties are so at odds with each other.
DER SPIEGEL: Did the leftists underestimate Meloni?
Prodi: I told my people that if we don’t stand together, we will lose. But that’s how it is in politics sometimes: You clash more intensely with your friends than with your adversaries.
DER SPIEGEL: Italy experienced several successful months under the leadership of Mario Draghi. The economy grew …
Prodi: … yes! Even stronger than in Germany…
DER SPIEGEL: Why did the Italians nevertheless opt for an outsider like Meloni?
Prodi: I don’t have a rational explanation, except for the fact that Draghi took the parties by surprise with his resignation. I would have bet a million euros that he would remain in office until May.
“I think that Draghi had simply had enough.”
DER SPIEGEL: You know Draghi well.
Prodi: I was a professor at Harvard in the 1970s. He was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Our families were close. I think that he had simply had enough. His resignation created an absurd situation: The citizens of Italy applauded Draghi, but the winner of his tenure was Meloni. Because of the short campaign, it was difficult for Letta to form alliances and set his own agenda.
DER SPIEGEL: What does the power shift in Italy mean for Europe?
Prodi: On the short term, I don’t think it means much. Italy needs the 200 million euros from the EU fund. That means Meloni’s hands are tied at the European level.
DER SPIEGEL: During the campaign, she said: “The fun is over” for Europe.
Prodi: There is a difference between what you say in a campaign versus what you do once you have the responsibility of governing. The same held true for the Five Star Movement. It would be suicide for Meloni to start a fight with Brussels at this moment, in the middle of a war and in an economic crisis. My bigger worry is that Italy could turn away from Germany and France in the not-too-distant future and toward countries like Hungary.
DER SPIEGEL: You fear and axis of anti-Europeans?
Prodi: That is certainly a danger. Meloni has a good relationship with Orbán in Hungary and with the governing PiS party in Poland. A new form of nationalism could begin spreading in Europe – at a time when European cooperation is more important than ever. France and Germany are the motor of Europe. But Italy has always been an important actor as well.
DER SPIEGEL: Is the EU at risk of political gridlock?
Prodi: In some respects, yes. Further European integration has receded into the distance for now. And that doesn’t just mean the accession of additional countries, such as those in the Balkans. The creation of a joint security and defense policy, of the kind that is absolutely necessary if Europe hopes to stand up to Russia and China, will become more difficult with Meloni.
DER SPIEGEL: What effect will Meloni’s election have on Europe’s policy toward Russia?
Prodi: That remains to be seen. Thus far in the Ukraine war, Meloni has clearly positioned herself in line with NATO and the West. Her potential coalition partners Salvini and Berlusconi, by contrast, are close to Putin. It isn’t yet clear who will win out.
DER SPIEGEL: Among your many former positions, you were once head of the European Commission. What advice would you give to your successor Ursula von der Leyen, when it comes to dealing with Meloni?
Prodi: During my tenure, Jörg Haider’s (right-wing populist) FPÖ party rose to power in Austria. Immediately following that election, European heads of state urged me to take action. But I said: Let’s wait until the government takes concrete action. I would advise Ursula von der Leyen to do the same.
DER SPIEGEL: Europe has been growing closer together since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Is that trend now reversing?
Prodi: We have to defend with all of our might the progress we have made. When I was Commission president, I was criticized for pushing for the accession of Eastern European countries. But without the eastern expansion, where would the EU now be standing in the face of Russia’s aggression? We also have to protect other neighbors from the influence of Russia and Turkey. Sicily is closer to Libya than to Milan. And yet, Turkey and Russia are dividing Libya up among themselves. When people no longer have the feeling that Europe protects them, what would then become of Europe?