The EU has “tools” to respond if the political situation in Italy goes in a “difficult direction,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday. She hinted that the country could face punishments such as those recently leveled against Hungary and Poland if the upcoming election results in the predicted right-wing sweep.
“My approach is that whatever democratic government is willing to work with us, we’re working together,” she said in response to a question over whether she had “concerns” about Sunday’s Italian parliamentary vote, in which the conservative Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) are projected to take first place.
“If things go in a difficult direction, I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools,” von der Leyen explained.
While EC spokesman Eric Mamer was quick to clarify that von der Leyen was merely “stressing the role of the Commission as guardian of the [European] treaties with regard to the rule of law,” not everyone interpreted her words that way.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist League party, denounced von der Leyen’s “shameful arrogance” and called on the EC to “respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people!” In the last round of polls earlier this month, the League was projected to take home 12% of the vote.
The EC earlier this month recommended suspending €7.5 billion ($7.5 billion) in funding to Hungary – a third of the money it receives from Brussels – over alleged “erosion of the rule of law.” Brussels leveled a similar punishment at Poland last year after the country’s constitutional tribunal found that some Polish laws override those of the EU.
Italy’s snap parliamentary election was triggered by the resignation of PM Mario Draghi in July after his partners in the ruling coalition abandoned him. As of September 9, when the blackout on publishing election polls took effect, the Fratelli d’Italia were estimated to take 25% of the vote. In addition to the League’s 12%, coalition partner Forza Italia is predicted to garner 8%, meaning a victory for the conservative bloc is easily within reach. Fratelli d’Italia barely won 4% of the vote in 2018.
Like the rest of the EU, Italy has been wrestling with a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by bloc-wide sanctions on Russian oil and gas. A general election had previously been set for next year.