Giorgia Meloni, Italy's new prime minister
Giorgia Meloni, Italy's new prime minister, speaks during a parliamentary session inside the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, ahead of a confidence vote in Rome, Italy, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Rome: Delivering an opening address to Parliament on Tuesday, new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said she would stand up to Russian "blackmail" and refrain from sabotaging European integration, as she tried to make the case that her government would not be a source of anxiety in the West.

"I have never felt sympathy or closeness toward anti-democratic regimes. For no regime, including fascism," Meloni said.

Meloni's ascent as Italy's top leader has attracted world attention because of her hard-line Christian cultural views and her party's ties to earlier post-fascist movements. But in her address, Meloni made almost no mention of social issues, aside from suggesting that individual freedoms, including on abortion, would not be rolled back. She thanked her predecessor, centrist Mario Draghi, and noted - in an example that contrasts with U.S. and British politics, of late - the "serene" change of power.

"So it should be in great democracies," she said.

Meloni, 45, still faces confidence votes in both houses of Parliament. But those steps, later Tuesday and Wednesday, are largely perfunctory, given her coalition's majority. That means Meloni could go five years before facing an election - unless infighting brings her down sooner, a common occurrence in Italy.

In the hourlong speech, Meloni framed herself as an "underdog." She does not come from a blue-blood political family, and she is Italy's first female leader. She cited numerous other prominent Italian women, including politicians, who opened the way to "break the heavy glass ceiling."

The character Meloni presented Tuesday bore little resemblance to the firebrand from earlier speeches - occasions in previous years when she denounced the "LGBT lobby," spoke conspiratorially about "international speculators," or decried the total erasure of gender and a future where families had "Parent 1 and Parent 2."

But it remains to be seen how fully Meloni, who says her party is "conservative" rather than far right, commits to a conventional line. In her speech, it was still possible to see potential battle lines with the European Union, as she said her government will "respect the rules currently in force," while also working to change those that haven't worked. She specifically cited the E.U.'s rules on public spending, which are under review. Critics say Meloni, who once questioned the value of the euro zone, prefers a Europe that is less integrated, in which nations are freer to stand up for their own interests - a philosophy they say could lead to fights in Brussels.

Meloni said her goal is to steer Europe to "greater effectiveness."

Migration could be a particular source of tension within the bloc. Meloni said Tuesday that she wants to halt the flow of immigrants across the Mediterranean. Her ideas for doing so involve European cooperation in an area where the bloc has rarely made progress. She is pushing for the Europe-backed creation of so-called hot spots in North Africa that could process asylum requests while E.U. forces work to halt boat departures.

Politicians on the left and right have long talked about remote centers for vetting would-be immigrants; few countries want to host such sites. Any plan would bring with it the risk of legal challenges and rights abuses.

Italy also has some power to close ports to humanitarian rescue ships - a step it took in 2018 and 2019, under a populist government. Though such measures have been contested in courts, Meloni could resurrect that policy, and Italian media on Tuesday said the Interior Ministry was preparing to deny the entry into Italian waters of two NGO vessels with several hundred immigrants aboard.

Meloni has other challenges closer to home. Although she stressed the importance of backing Ukraine, leaders of the other parties in her coalition - Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini - have shown personal affection for Vladimir Putin, with Berlusconi claiming to have recently exchanged birthday gifts with the Russian president.

Separately on Tuesday, she reiterated a priority that would be controversial in Italy: restructuring the nature of the presidency. The person in that position has largely a ceremonial role, except in times of crisis, and is chosen by a vote of politicians. Meloni's party, Fratelli d'Italia, says the country's perpetual political instability could be improved by making the president directly elected and giving that person some of the day-to-day governing duties - in a system that mirrors that of France.

Meloni lost some of the leverage to attempt such a change when her coalition failed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary for unilateral constitutional changes. But she indicated in her speech that she still wants to pursue the changes, arguing that Italy's constant political turnover was discouraging foreign investment and weakening its negotiating capacity internationally. Such an effort would be highly contested, given that some Italians see the president as a backstop against any one leader concentrating political power.

"We will not give up on reforming Italy," Meloni said.

Ezio Mauro, the former editor in chief of the Italian daily La Repubblica, said such a move would "change the shape of our state."

"I don't think the presidential reform would be wrong per se," Mauro said. "There are deeply democratic countries such as France that have a presidential system. But we need to remember that Italy's own history led to the republic as it is today, because they wanted to prevent any risk of a strongman. The problem, the way I see it, is as follows: the Meloni government marks the end of anti-fascism."