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Issues surrounding Meloni's G7 echo troubles of past Italy-hosted summits

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni leaves after delivering a speech during the G7 world leaders summit at Borgo Egnazia, Italy.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni leaves after delivering a speech during the G7 world leaders summit at Borgo Egnazia, Italy. Copyright AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Copyright AP Photo/Luca Bruno
By Andrew Naughtie
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The Italian prime minister's turn to host the key annual summit got off to an embarrassing start — but it could have been much worse.

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Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has crafted a charismatic persona for herself since taking office.

Since October 2022, the leader of the far-right Fratelli d'Italia party has become internationally known for her exuberant manner when greeting foreign counterparts, encouraging them to pose for selfies with her at what are normally stiff and staid multilateral events.

It’s a persona that has helped soften her reputation as a hardline right-winger, at least on the international stage. But as Italy’s turn came to host the annual G7 summit this week, an array of problems sprung up to embarrass her.

The event's organisation came under criticism when a ship deployed to house the summit’s 2,000-odd security staff turned out to be in dire condition, with pictures of overflowing toilets and filthy corridors shared on social media.

The ship, which had recently been rechristened Goddess of the Night, was in such poor condition that police arrived to investigate what they called “significant hygienic-sanitary criticalities and serious accommodation deficiencies”.

The contract for the ship was worth around €6 million. Its intended guests were relocated, and the Goddess’ owner is being investigated for possible fraud.

Public discourse ahead of the event was also less than edifying, with Italian national media picking apart a CNN article that described the region hosting the summit as riven with “mafia-style violence”, with organised crime groups “knocking off foes in brazen daylight attacks and carrying out armed car-jackings at an alarming rate”.

Reports in Italian newspapers pointed out inaccuracies in the English-language story, but it made enough of an impact that elected officials were interviewed about it.

One of them, right-wing Forza Italia Senator Maurizio Gasparri, managed to breathe new life into the controversy when he appeared to suggest the story referred to the governor of Puglia and the mayor of its capital, Bari, both of whom have been caught up in an investigation into mafia infiltration of regional politics.  

It’s not the first time an Italian-hosted summit has been tainted by an organised crime narrative of dubious accuracy. While the 2017 G7 went off largely without any unwanted drama, then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pointedly relocated it from Florence to Taormina in Sicily in response to what he described as “bad jokes” about the island’s supposed criminality by unspecified foreign leaders.

“We decided to move it when, during an international meeting, some leaders made one too many quips about Sicily, on its stereotypes and prejudices,” he wrote on Facebook, saying his native Florence would forgive the slight.

In fighting form

Meanwhile, away from this year’s summit itself, the Italian parliament saw lawmakers from multiple parties descend into fistfights during a vote on a bill giving the country’s regions more autonomy over their affairs.

A member of the Five Star Movement, which sits in opposition to Meloni’s government, had to be carted out of the chamber in a wheelchair after provoking her minister of regional affairs, Roberto Calderoli — a man previously sentenced to 18 months in jail for telling a crowd that Italy’s first black cabinet minister "reminded him of an orangutan".

Such spectacles will hardly help Meloni project her preferred image of her country or her government. But given Italy’s overall record of hosting the summit, Meloni might be relieved that things have gone as smoothly as they have.

In 2009, the Italian effort was far more embarrassing. The government of populist mainstay Silvio Berlusconi was forced to deny reports that its preparations for the summit were so chaotic that the US had to step in to manage the agenda.

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The atmosphere was not helped by the multiple scandals swirling around Berlusconi at the time, including allegations of sex trafficking and illegal drug use or his public description of Barack and Michelle Obama as “suntanned”.

Masked protesters walk past a burning car during clashes between anti-globalisation activists and riot police in Genoa, Italy, 2001.
Masked protesters walk past a burning car during clashes between anti-globalisation activists and riot police in Genoa, Italy, 2001.AP/AP2001

But the real nadir was the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, where massive anti-globalisation protests spiralled into shocking violence on the city’s streets. The Italian Carabinieri cracked down with force; many protesters were injured and one killed — all with the world’s media watching. 

Against that example, Meloni’s awkward start to the summit can be celebrated for ending peacefully at a moment of fearsome international tension.

And the fact that she was one of the only heads of government there not to be facing an existential threat to their leadership will not have hurt.

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