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Italian PM Meloni hails ‘frank’ talks in Brussels

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hailed "very frank and very positive" talks with EU chiefs in Brussels on her first international trip since taking power.

Italian PM Meloni hails 'frank' talks in Brussels
President of the European Council Charles Michel (R) welcomes the newly appointed Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the European Council headquarter in Brussels, on November 3, 2022. - Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni started a series of meetings with EU chiefs in Brussels on November 3, with her commitment to European unity in the spotlight. (Photo by Valeria Mongelli / AFP)

The nationalist leader of a post-fascist party, whose ascension last month sparked fears of turbulence with the bloc, struck a largely conciliatory tone after a string of meetings.

But she fielded no questions from journalists and mostly focused on common ground: jointly tackling high energy prices and European unity supporting Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia.

“I wanted to give the signal… of an Italy that obviously wants to participate, collaborate, defend its national interest and do so within the European dimension,” she said in a brief statement.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted after her meeting with Meloni that she sent a “strong signal” by visiting EU institutions as her first international act.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange on critical issues ranging from support to Ukraine, energy to the NextGenEU (economic recovery package) and migration,” von der Leyen said.

The head of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, the first to welcome Meloni, said via a spokesman that “we are totally  aligned on Ukraine”.

On the energy price issue, Metsola said there were “different realities” among EU member states — in a nod to Italy’s heavy reliance on imported gas — “but we must find the courage and political will to act as we did during the pandemic: by joining forces”.

Meloni also met European Council President Charles Michel.

In each of her encounters, she and the respective EU officials smiled and shook hands in front of EU and Italian flags but made no comments to media.

The wariness of the European chiefs towards Meloni spoke of unease in seeing another populist government take charge in another of the EU’s 27 member states, alongside Poland and Hungary which have challenged rule of law principles and practices.

Although Meloni has in the past called for her country to scrap the euro, and in a new book rails against an “invasive” EU, she has been careful to emphasise Western solidarity and support for NATO.

Political analyst Lorenzo Codogno told AFP that the first woman prime minister of Italy, heading its most far-right government since World War II, was “pragmatic and wants to be perceived as a moderate and mainstream leader”.

There were hints, however, of friction over irregular immigration into Italy, which Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party are deeply hostile towards and consider a priority.

Meloni said that was “a very delicate, very important matter”.

She said Italy was pressing the EU to change its “point of view” on how Italy wanted to approach its “defence of external borders” of the bloc.

In her talks, she said “I have found ears that are, let’s say, willing to listen”.

The leader of the eurozone’s third-largest economy also stressed the urgency of European measures to reduce sky-high energy prices, a battle begun by her predecessor Mario Draghi.

“Concrete solutions must now be given, obviously in the shortest possible time,” she said. Overall, she said she was “happy with the climate I have found here in Brussels” during her visit, seeing it as an opportunity to set aside caricatures drawn up about Italy’s far-right.

“We are not Martians — we are flesh and blood people explaining their positions and it seems to me… on the other side there were people who wanted to listen.”

A senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity just before Meloni arrived, said “the noises we’ve been hearing from Rome are, by and large, very positive”.

He added it appeared at this stage that Italy was showing a “clear willingness to play within the rules of the game”.

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POLITICS

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.

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