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The Covid-19 pandemic and the full-scale war in Ukraine have been followed by a shift in the discourse of Italy’s ethnopopulist Fratelli D’Italia party, aimed at domestic and international audiences. An analysis of party documents and speeches of party leader—Giorgia Meloni—between 2013 and 2022 shows that the need for European cooperation, exacerbated by these crises, brought Fratelli D’Italia to moderate its Euroscepticism and xenophobia and to heighten its antagonism towards the Italian left and the governing elite.


Beatrice Bottura

August 17, 2023


As Europe has faced multifaceted and intensifying crises in recent years, populism has risen considerably. Through the 2008 financial and the 2015 migration crises, the type labeled “ethnopopulism” has become prevalent in Europe. It is characterized by a mix of nationalism and conservatism, as it defines the “people” in national and ethnic terms. Like other types of populists, ethnopopulists have always used and created crises, if necessary, to generate divisions within societies and attract political support. A prime example of this is the rise of parties, such as Lega and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) in Italy, that have won substantial support since 2013 by making crises the center of their discourse. The latter came first in the 2022 general elections, which resulted in its leader, Giorgia Meloni, becoming prime minister.

Nationalism and populism have been the two pillars of FdI’s ideology since its foundation in 2012 (see for reference: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The party has always claimed to act in the name of the sovereign people in the national and international contexts. Accordingly, it opposes political elites and raises the “will of the people” against the political establishment and the left. FdI also speaks of defending national sovereignty in the face of supranational actors and European institutions. It claims to protect the nation from outsiders, putting forward radical nationalist and xenophobic ideas to counter the effects of globalization and of the alleged “ethnic substitution” that it believes affects Italy and Europe. This ideological orientation manifests itself through the proposal of radical anti-immigration and protectionist policies to safeguard Italy’s economy and borders. FdI has frequently advocated a “Europe of the people”, called for the re-evaluation of European economic treaties — including that on the eurozone — and proposed the closing of Italian ports to immigrants from North Africa.

However, recent crises and their harsh effects on Italy, have contributed to shifts in the FdI’s discourse. Indeed, despite the essential role played by nationalism in the party’s ideology, FdI has reconsidered their attitude towards outsiders. An analysis of recent party documents and speeches by Meloni between 2018 and 2022 reveals changes in its discourse regarding national and international concerns. Since 2022 FdI expresses a higher level of acceptance toward war refugees and European institutions as well as a more radical opposition to the Italian left.

“Since 2022 FdI expresses a higher level of acceptance toward war refugees and European institutions as well as a more radical opposition to the Italian left.”

Regarding international matters, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, FdI’s discourse has become more temperate and cooperative. In 2020, its criticism of European institutions was mainly focused on the EU’s lack of joint action in the first months of the pandemic, while making little mention of renegotiating international economic treaties, which had emphasized before. Meloni accused the EU of leaving Italy behind in the emergency and of prioritizing certain member states at the expense of others. FdI’s discourse to the EU changed radically with the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine. It now emphasizes the need for a united front and urgent cooperation among EU and NATO members. Meloni portrays Italy as being on the front line rather than in the rear, befitting a founding member of the EU and NATO. Against this background, FdI no longer argues for revisiting the EU treaties, and it even declares Italy’s full adherence to and cooperation with the EU’s economic policies and recovery plans. Through this approach, Meloni aims to make Italy a protagonist in addressing the crisis, including the energy consequences of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The intensity of FdI’s xenophobic and nativist rhetoric has also remarkably decreased. This is noticeable in the lower salience it gave to immigration as a topic during and after the 2022 elections. Unlike that in the case of supranational institutions, the change in its discourse about immigration began more recently. During the pandemic, it still opposed Italy taking in immigrants, claiming that they would endanger the health of Italians. However, since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, FdI has endorsed legal migration and the admission of war refugees, a switch in its rhetoric from identity-based criteria for accepting immigrants and refugees to cause-based ones. The party’s xenophobia now only pertains to illegal migrants. FdI now also calls for the protection of all European borders rather than just those of Italy, as well as for the EU to cooperate with North African states in creating international “hotspots” in their territories to evaluate asylum applications.

Domestically, the changes in FdI’s discourse have been in the opposite direction. Its rhetorical attacks on the political establishment and the left have become harsher since the beginning of the pandemic. While in opposition, Meloni consistently accused the government of using the pandemic to avoid elections and of ruling and maintaining power in an undemocratic manner. In 2021, FdI was the only party that did not give a vote of confidence to the newly appointed prime minister on the grounds that its priority was to serve the Italian people and promote their will. FdI used similar rhetoric during the 2022 elections, attacking the previous technocratic and leftwing governments of deserting their nation, and claiming to have concrete solutions to promote the well-being of the Italian people.

The shifts in FdI’s ethnopopulist discourse can be partially traced to the effects of international crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, along with the energy crisis that followed the latter. Italy was deeply affected by these crises as it was one of the first countries to experience the emergence of Covid-19 in March 2020 and one of the most reliant on Russian gas in February 2022. The need of the EU’s support in facing these situations led the party to reduce its aversion to European institutions. In the context of the war in Ukraine, the party had to move away from its Eurosceptic stance to join NATO’s united front against Russia. Similarly, it had to tone down its anti-immigration stances, only towards legal immigrants, as the acceptance of Ukrainian war refugees was necessary. Consequentially, the party shifted its populist rhetoric within the nation by increasing its animosity towards previous government and technocratic elites, which had supposedly enabled Italy’s downfall.

Because of the international nature of the crises that led to these discourse shifts by FdI, this may be replicated by other ethnopopulist parties. In particular, this case suggests that any crisis highlighting the importance of a unified Europe might lead to similar changes by European ethnopopulist parties. Indeed, owing to the nature of ethnopopulist parties, crises that cannot be tackled nationally and heighten the need for international cooperation could result in ethnopopulist parties lowering their level of Euroscepticism and xenophobia to ease access to international assistance. At the same time, these parties may shift their criticism more to the domestic environment and increase their antagonism to domestic opponents.

“This case suggests that any crisis highlighting the importance of a unified Europe might lead to similar changes by European ethnopopulist parties.”


As the support for ethnopopulist parties is on the rise throughout Europe, the study of their discursive shifts is relevant. Indeed, these shifts affect the parties’ relationship with voters and their mobilization potential. This is significant for the democratic establishment of the European Union, in particular in a Europe faced with escalating international crises.




Beatrice Bottura is a bachelor graduate in philosophy, politics, and economics from the Central European University in Vienna and is currently enrolled at Sciences Po in Paris as a Master’s student in public policy specializing in social policy and social innovation.

This article is based on her BA thesis entitled “Ethnopopulists’ Reaction to Crises: The Case of Fratelli d’Italia” and submitted to the Central European University in 2023.


The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.



Photo credit: Italian Government, via Wikimedia Commons

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Franco Rebolini

Very interesting

Raimondo bultrini

Deep insight thanks

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