Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni welcomed a "very frank, very positive" exchange with European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday after making a series of rather soothing remarks about the bloc since her election.
"I am happy with the climate I found in Brussels," the 45-year-old told reporters after meeting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and European Council President Charles Michel.
"From a personal, human point of view, there was a very frank and positive exchange," added the leader, who heads Italy's most right-wing government since the post-war period.
Meloni travelled to Brussels for her first meetings with the leaders of European Union institutions since taking office.
The head of the eurozone's third-largest economy was determined to focus on the sensitive issue of soaring energy prices against the backdrop of Russia's war in Ukraine. The debate had already been begun by her predecessor Mario Draghi, who had called for a solution from the EU27 and criticised Berlin's individualistic approach.
Meloni said she had "set out the Italian point of view" and insisted on the need to "find a European solution as soon as possible", defending the idea of a ceiling on gas prices.
Afterwards she said on Twitter that she wanted to send a sign that Italy "wants to participate, collaborate and defend its national interest within the European dimension, bringing the best solutions together with other nations on the great challenges".
Ursula von der Leyen struck the same conciliatory tone, referring in a tweet to the "strong signal" sent by this visit. "It was a good opportunity to exchange views on crucial issues," she added, referring in particular to Ukraine, energy and the issue of migrants.
Meloni's meeting with von der Leyen was particularly anticipated after the Commission president's warning before the elections of the consequences Italy would face if it drifted away from democratic principles.
No joint declaration was organised at the end of the three meetings in Brussels. Instead, all were at pains to point out the points of convergence.
"We are fully aligned with Ukraine," said Roberta Metsola at the end of the meeting. "We will continue to be firm on sanctions. And we are united in reaffirming our support for Ukraine.
'Clear willingness to engage'
Meloni said ahead of the trip on social media that "Italy's voice in Europe will be strong: we are ready to tackle the big issues, starting with the energy crisis, collaborating for a solution to support families and businesses and to curb speculation."
"From everything we've seen so far, Meloni will try to signal that she is going to be assertive but not disruptive and that she can build a constructive relationship with the EU institutions," Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER) told Euronews before the visit.
"Her main ask is going to be greater joint EU efforts to cope with energy costs — following in [former Italian Prime Minister Mario] Draghi's footsteps. To that end, she is likely to try to push for minor changes to Italy's EU recovery plan, to devote more of it to dealing with higher energy costs," he added.
The new prime minister's visit to the European capital cames just days after she delayed the application of a justice reform that is necessary for the country to receive EU post-pandemic recovery funds.
Rome is set to receive about €200 billion, making it the largest beneficiary of the bloc's €806.9 billion post-COVID package.
The disbursement of the funds is however conditioned on a number of milestones negotiated with Meloni's predecessor, Mario Draghi. Other reforms that have been agreed upon are over competition and the country's administration.
Meloni's appointment of Giancarlo Giorgetti as the new economy minister was largely seen as a nod to markets and the EU that Italy would respect its engagement. The politician, from the populist right-wing La Lega party, was in Draghi's cabinet as minister of economic development.
"The noises we've been hearing from Rome are largely positive," an EU official said on Thursday, citing a "clear willingness to engage and play within the rules of the game, that of course, is highly positive."
"What's going on in Italy is very much in line with what happens in the context of national elections, there is campaign and there is a government, and then there is engagement with Europe, I'm confident the (Italy's) engagement will happen in good spirit," they added.
Meloni 'ready to blame EU' for government failings
But Meloni has also adopted a combative stance towards Brussels, calling for changes to the €200 billion deal, arguing that the current situation is vastly different from when it was first struck, something the Commission has said it is unlikely to allow.
At home, she has also blamed the bloc for some of the country's woes, such as inflation and illegal migration, and once described Brussels as a "usurer".
"Her attempt at pleasing Brussels - by suddenly embracing a constructive European spirit - hides a deeper, possibly deleterious, new European doctrine. Meloni is already depicting the EU as the ultimate (one) responsible for the solution of all Italian problems - from inflation to migration - so as to be ready to blame it for what her coalition might not be able to deliver," Alberto Alemanno, a Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law at HEC Paris, told Euronews.
"In Meloni’s world, EU-bashing is the ultimate insurance against political failure."
"While pursuing this doctrine, Giorgia Meloni won’t hesitate to side with her ‘best friends’ sitting in the EU Council: Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki to gain more leverage at the EUCO’s table," he added.