NeverEnding Story: Elon Musk attending Giorgia Meloni’s fantasy party

Elon Musk and VOX’s leader Santiago Abascal will be among the guests attending Giorgia Meloni’s bizarre 4-day fantasy-themed Christmas party, “Atreju”, which celebrates Italy’s conservative youth.


This year, Giorgia Meloni’s Christmas party for young conservatives, called “Atreju”, is going to have a little more sparkle than the festival had in the past 26 years.

Back in 1998, Meloni was not a well-known figure in Italian politics. But as the head of the Rome branch of Azione Giovani (the youth section of the now defunct Alleanza Nazionale party), she created a nationwide event dedicated to celebrating the country’s conservative youth.

The event was named by Meloni after Atreyu, one of the main characters of the 1984 fantasy film “The NeverEnding Story.”

For those who already know about Meloni’s obsession with the fantasy genre, which she consistently interprets through her right-wing lens, this name won’t be surprising. 

Neither would be the fact that she got the idea to create Atreju after attending Hobbit Camp in the 1990s, a Woodstock-like retreat organised by the post-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano party for young people to celebrate J.R.R. Tolkien’s books.

But this edition of this right-wing fantasy festival, which will run from Thursday 14 December to Sunday 17 December, and is now backed by Meloni’s party Brothers of Italy, will be different from the ones that have come before.

First of all, Meloni is no longer at the fringe of Italian politics, but right at its top. Second, Meloni’s new role has allowed her to attract some high-profile guest stars to her bizarre, fantasy-themed event, including tech billionaire Elon Musk and leader of Spanish populist party Vox Santiago Abascal, recently at the centre of a nasty controversy.

What’s the festival about?

According to Piero Garofalo, Professor of Italian Studies at the University of New Hampshire in the US, Atreju is “less a political convention than a partisan political event.” The festival, which this year will have a Christmas village and an ice rink, features youth-oriented concerts, exhibits, debates, and humour and has a focus on socialising rather than just talking politics.

The theme of this year’s edition is ‘Bentornato orgoglio italiano’ (‘Welcome Back Italian Pride’),” a title that’s perfectly in line with Meloni’s electoral manifesto and constant mantra. And while the event has kept its traditional social, jovial nature, its political importance is undeniable this year.

“Today, with Giorgia Meloni’s political ascent and Brothers of Italy’s recent electoral successes, Atreju has gained increasing importance by [previously] attracting high-profile guests – like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon – and media attention,” Garofalo tells Euronews.

“The festival now serves as a platform to showcase Giorgia Meloni’s international stature and the Italian right’s integration into the international community,” he added. 

Who’s going to attend?

The guest list of the party is a who’s who of the European and international right.

Among the most prominent guests, there are Elon Musk, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, and Spanish leader of the far-right Vox party, Santiago Abascal.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, “who shares with Giorgia Meloni unorthodox approaches to addressing the influx of migrants, will apparently meet with Premier Meloni on Saturday morning during the festival though not necessarily at the festival,” Garofalo says.

According to Garofalo, participation at Atreju does not automatically signal solidarity with or support for Giorgia Meloni.

“For example, several leaders of opposition parties, including Matteo Renzi, Carlo Calenda, Angelo Bonelli, and Michele Emiliano, will also attend the festival in the hope of attracting votes and making themselves relevant,” he says.

“Indeed, participation signals the increasing importance and visibility that the Atreju platform provides speakers. That said, beyond the attendees, who will likely exceed 100,000, and the extensive media coverage (due in large part to the prominent guests) over the next four days, Atreju is not an event followed with particular interest by the general public although it will certainly take centre-stage this week,” he added.

Notably, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, has declined Meloni’s invitation to the festival.


What’s with ‘The NeverEnding Story’?

The Italian rendering of the name Atreju is an homage to the dragon-riding warrior protagonist of the 1979 German fantasy novel, The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, Garofalo explains.

The novel became a Hollywood hit in 1984 and made more than $100 million at the global box office. It was particularly successful in Germany where five million people flocked to the cinema to watch the epic fantasy movie, which featured special effects which were groundbreaking at the time. 

“This name was chosen because, for the event’s organisers, the fantasy character represents committed youth who in the eternal battle between good and evil resist nihilism to preserve ideals,” he says.

Giorgia Meloni underscored the novel’s importance in a 2019 Facebook post commemorating the 40th anniversary of the novel’s publication, writing: “A very significant novel that marked my childhood. Atreju’s struggle and victory against The Nothing, an enemy trying to wear down the imagination of youth by stripping it of values, still represents an inspiring symbol today. With this model in mind, I have always carried forward my political passion!.”

“The Neverending Story” and Atreyu are far from the first fantasy novels and heroes that Meloni has co-opted for her political use. During her long career, she has often mentioned J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”, which was the subject of a major exhibition in Rome this year.


Among Meloni’s fantasy idols, there is also George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” and the manga character and space pirate Captain Harlock. 

Playing into an old tradition

“The fascination with and appropriation of the fantasy genre by the post-fascist far-right pre-dates Giorgia Meloni and emerges as a recognisable phenomenon in 1970s Italy,” Garofalo explains. “Italian nationalists positioned themselves as a small fellowship of truth-holders who stand against an overwhelming obfuscating force that enshrouds society.”

Fantasy narratives provide vivid oppositions to and rejections of the modern world, according to Garofalo, depicting “as noble the struggles of traditional societies to preserve an idealised past against the threats of change embodied by external forces.”

In this context, Meloni’s appropriation of fantasy symbolism in the political discourse plays into this tradition “precisely because it provides a teleological rationale for political actions whose immediate effects are not recognizably relatable to long-term goals,” Garofalo says.

“When the symbol is real, the end result is real. As Giorgia Meloni has stated: ‘I don’t consider The Lord of the Rings fantasy’.”


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Scorecard: What has Giorgia Meloni achieved in her first year as PM?

It’s been a year since Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right party Brothers of Italy, became the country’s first female prime minister, at the head of a coalition government – but what have they achieved?


It’s been 12 months since Giorgia Meloni, a controversial politician who for years had been a vocal member of the opposition within her post-fascist party Brothers of Italy, became the country’s first woman to cover the role of prime minister.

The worst fears raised after last year’s election results have not turned into reality: the country has not turned its back on Ukraine to embrace a more pro-Putin stance or made any moves to leave the European Union. Any references to Brother of Italy’s fascist roots have been down-played, and Meloni has significantly dialled back her own vitriol against immigrants.

But, as much as the fears that followed the establishment of the most hard-right government in Italy since World War II, many of the changes promised by Meloni have also largely failed to materialise.

Here’s Euronews’ scorecard for the Italian premier’s first year in government. Meloni made a total of 25 promises in her government’s programme, which we’ve grouped by topic.

Stopping illegal immigration: Fail

One of Brother of Italy’s electoral promises was to defend “the country’s frontiers” by creating a naval blockade off the coast of North Africa, an idea that has re-emerged in recent months as the country faced a surge in migrant arrivals on its shores.

This promise, clearly, has not been turned into reality – possibly because it’s legally tricky to implement, if not outright illegal.

A naval blockade can only be created unilaterally by a state in cases of legitimate defence when a war or an act of aggression from another country is involved – situations that don’t apply to the current circumstances.

Italy is not at war with either Libya or Tunisia, the countries of origin of most arrivals and with which the Italian government has actually forged agreements to curb migration.

In general, Meloni’s promises to curb migration have largely failed, leading to the premier’s admission that she had hoped to do better than she actually did.

By mid-October, more than 140,000 migrant arrivals had been registered by Italy’s Interior Ministry so far this year, compared to 70,000 in the same period last year.

But that doesn’t mean that Meloni’s government hasn’t tried to keep its electoral promises – including targeting NGOs which “encourage illegal immigration,” as Brothers of Italy wrote in its programme.

Since the autumn of last year, Meloni’s government has restricted the activities of NGOs and rescue ships, and struck a controversial deal with Tunisia’s President Kais Saied to assist the country in stemming migration. It has also made it easier to evict migrants from the country and send them back to “safe countries” like Tunisia.

For Meloni’s critics, human rights and migrant rights activists, that’s enough harm done.

Spending EU funds promised to Italy: In progress

In 2020, the European Union made available a huge fund of €191.5 billion to Italy to get back on track after the COVID-19 pandemic, called the National Recovery and Resilience Plan or PNRR.

Meloni promised to spend this huge sum without delays and without any waste of money on projects aimed at reforming and updating Italy’s infrastructure. But in April her government was still struggling to find ways to spend the EU funds due to Italy’s elephantine bureaucracy and delays at local levels.

While Meloni’s government has indeed started spending some of the EU funds already transferred, inefficiencies at every level of the process made it so that a big slice of the PNRR was still being withheld by the EU this summer.

In late July, Meloni presented a new plan to Brussels to spend the promised money – but the premier is facing an uphill battle before she can spend the entire €191.5 billion promised.

Supporting Italian families and encouraging new births: Pass/In progress

This was the very first point in Meloni’s party’s programme: to increase Italy’s birth rate and support couples wishing to build a family. By this, of course, Meloni meant the traditional, heteronormative family.


The party had promised up to €300 a month for every family during the first year of a child’s birth; and up to €260 between the second year and the child’s 18th birthday.

This is something that the Meloni government is still partially working on, having already introduced cheques for families with children but also planning new policies in this direction. In its latest budgetary plan, the government has included one billion euros to be assigned to projects supporting new births in Italy.

New measures include a cheque for families having a third child, fringe benefits up to €2,000 for families with kids, an extra month of parental leave paid at 60% of a worker’s salary and tax deductions for companies hiring new mothers.

“She’s introduced tax benefits and checks for families proportionally to the number of children that they have,” Marianna Griffini, Assistant Professor at Northeastern University London and an expert in Italian politics, told Euronews.

“Meloni even participated in Hungary’s summit on demography. She met with Viktor Orban and she was acclaimed as an ideologue by the Hungarian leader, so she’s definitely doubling down on the importance of the traditional family.”


Other, less traditional types of families have on the other hand been punished by the Meloni government, with surrogacy having been made illegal for Italians even outside of the country. During the past year, queer parents across the country have seen their names removed from their children’s certificate, as Italy passed a law saying that only the biological parent of a child can appear on it.

Promoting “Made in Italy,” boosting Italian pride, and relaunching tourism: Pass

Meloni’s government definitely kept its promise to defend the concept of “Made in Italy” and try to boost Italian pride, though that doesn’t mean these efforts received international approval.

Earlier this year, the government pushed forward a controversial measure defending the Italian language and identity against the contamination of English words. The legal initiative would punish the use of foreign words in official communication with fines between €5,000 and €100,000.

“They did very well on this, I think,” said Professor Griffini laughing. “They tried to interfere with linguistic choices, and then they invested in the cultural sector with that ‘fabulous’ project boosting tourism, Open to Meraviglia.”

The project was largely mocked online for putting Botticelli’s Venus in the clothes of a 21st-century influencer as well as for using footage of Slovenia to advertise tourism in Italy. The ad campaign was dead in the water just a few months after launching, sparking an investigation in Italy about potential abuses of public money.


Changing Italy’s constitution for the direct election of the country’s president: Fail

One of the promises of Meloni’s party was to fight political instability in Italy by changing the country’s constitution and giving more powers to the president – making Italian politics look a lot more like French politics. With the constitutional reform suggested by Meloni, the Italian president would be elected directly, unlike now, and be a powerful head of state rather than a largely symbolic figure.

Meloni floated this idea earlier this year, but the initiative was strongly opposed by the centre-left opposition, which fears having too much power in a single person.

“They haven’t done much on this, they haven’t done anything on it, actually,” Griffini said. It’s unlikely that Meloni will make more progress on this issue in the coming months and years as opposition is unlikely to dwindle.

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A heinous rape in Italy sparked calls to introduce chemical castration

The treatment is already allowed on a voluntary basis in several EU countries, but only in Poland is it currently compulsory for rapists and child sex abusers.

Following a horrifying gang rape that shocked the country, Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini suggested a drastic, controversial solution: the introduction of forced chemical castration for rapists.


Seven men, all between the age of 18 and 22, have been accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in the city of Palermo, Sicily, in early July and filming the attack. 

The case, which emerged last week when the trial against the young woman’s alleged abusers began, has taken over the public debate in Italy, with details of the attack – including the chats between the seven men – shared by local media sparking fury and disgust.

The argument around the case has seen some declaring that “not all men” should be blamed, while others have pointed at Italy’s grim track record of femicides and rampant violence against women to show that the problem is systemic.

Salvini, the leader of the far-right, populist party League and currently Italy’s minister of infrastructure and transport within Meloni’s coalition government, pushed himself into the public debate suggesting rapists should be chemically castrated as punishment for their actions.

“If you rape a woman or a child, you clearly have a problem. A prison sentence is not enough,” he said.

Six of the seven men involved in the rape of the woman in Palermo have already been arrested, while one – who was a minor at the time of the attack – was allowed to walk free after confessing. According to reports from the men’s families and their lawyers, the six are having a hard time in prison, where they’re being threatened by other inmates.

Salvini suggested bringing his proposal to introduce forced chemical castration for rapists to Parliament. Under his plan, the medical treatment could be imposed by a judge sentencing a child molester or rapist and would be automatic in case of repeated offending.

The idea has been criticised by many, including lawmaker Laura Boldrini of the left-centre party Partito Democratico (PD), who said that while the proposal might get Salvini some “political consensus,” what’s needed to fix the problem is a “cultural change” that should start from Italy’s schools. 

Salvini is not the first to call for forced chemical castration for sex offenders – something that has already been embraced by countries like Pakistan (which had introduced it for repeat offenders but dropped it in 2021) and Indonesia (in the case of child molesters only), and which Russia is reportedly considering to introduce for paedophiles at the end of their prison sentence.

But does it work? Euronews asked an expert what’s the impact of chemical castration on sex offenders, and whether the procedure is even proper from a human rights perspective.

What is chemical castration – and does it work?

Castration can be obtained by either physically removing a man’s testicles – what’s known as surgical castration – or, as suggested by Salvini, by administering drugs through injections and pills that lower a man’s testosterone levels.


While this practice has previously been found to reduce libido and seminal fluid in men and has been linked to lower recidivism rates, experts say it has little to no impact on a person’s capacity to harm another – including assaulting them or raping them. It doesn’t address the role that power dynamics plays in these types of aggression, or try to solve the societal and psychological problems at their roots.

“People do not become sex offenders solely because of certain hormones or hormonal imbalance,” Dirk Baier, a criminologist at the ZHAW Institute of Delinquency at Zurich University in Switzerland, told Euronews.

“The development into a sexual offender takes place in a longer-term socialisation process. The personality that is formed through this process cannot then simply be changed through drug treatment,” he continued.

“According to these thoughts, the causes of sexual offences cannot be singularly attributed to an overproduction of the hormone testosterone. Drug treatment of sex offenders is therefore overestimated as an intervention measure; there is no scientific, experimentally validated evidence that this measure is effective.”

On top of this, chemical castration is only effective while under treatment, and can be reversed with time after discontinuing the procedure – meaning that the sexual urge that led an offender to abuse another person can resurface. 


‘Inhuman and degrading’

There are also ethical and medical reasons to be wary of chemical castration: the treatment is known to have several collateral effects, including depression, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, hot flashes, infertility, and anaemia.

While the health of sex offenders might not gather much sympathy among the public, their well-being while under the custody of the state is a matter of justice that’s at the heart of the democratic system.

“Amnesty opposes forced chemical castration because it amounts to a violation of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” Elisa de Pieri, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Euronews.

“It also poses issues in terms of applicability from the point of view of doctors who would be forced to perform something that is against the prohibition of torture. And in this sense, we obviously cannot support any legislative proposals in this direction,” she added.

“But the other aspect that we are keen to underline is that this is an alleged solution that only addresses the perpetrators, whereas we know from a lot of countries where we’ve monitored trends about rape, that rape comes from a much more complex cultural situation in society.”


In the end, there are no conclusive studies about the effectiveness of chemical castration in preventing the repetition of sex crimes. “For me, chemical castration doesn’t work because resocialising offenders requires more than just administering a drug,” said Baier.

“Such ‘technocratic views’ never worked in the past,” he added. “Resocialising offenders is just as lengthy and intensive a process as socialising them into becoming criminals. It requires specialised professionals – psychologists, social workers – as well as a broad social network and intensive work with the offender.”

The reason why some politicians keep calling for the introduction of forced chemical castration is because “it promises safety,” said Baier.

“It is a measure that enjoys high approval in certain population groups and contributes to a higher sense of security. The majority of the population thinks: If someone is castrated, he can no longer show sexual behaviour and therefore can no longer be sexually assaultive; but that is not correct as a general rule,” he continued.

“Chemical castration, like the repeated calls for harsher punishments in politics, is a narrative that promises security, because it marks a strong state that is able to act against crime and violence.”

What’s the situation in Europe?

A number of EU member states offer the use of chemical castration on a voluntary basis, as in most countries the treatment cannot be made compulsory for sex offenders.

In countries like Germany and the UK, chemical castration is available to dangerous or mentally ill sex offenders on a voluntary basis, with the treatment often linked to a reduction of their prison sentence.

Poland is the only EU country which has made possible, since 2009, to sentence sexual offenders to compulsory chemical castration. 

In October 2011, Russia approved a law allowing court-requested forensic psychiatrists to prescribe chemical castration for convicted child sex offenders.

Moldova, which is not a member of the EU, voted in 2012 to make chemical castration compulsory for those convicted of violently abusing children under the age of 15 and rapists, though in the case of the latter that’s decided on a case by case basis.

In 2019, the Ukrainian parliament voted to adopt a law allowing the compulsory chemical castration of convicted paedophiles older than 18 and not above the age of 65,

In Europe, the Czech Republic is the only country which allows for surgical castration – an option made available on a voluntary basis. Germany used to offer it until 2012, when the country abolished the procedure in response to criticism from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane or Degrading Punishment.

What’s an effective alternative?

Instead of chemical castration – a practice which has been condemned by human rights activists groups like Amnesty – Baier said we should be thinking of more effective methods to fight rape and sex offences.

“What is really helpful are learning programs and therapies that help sex offenders reflect on their behaviour, take responsibility, and develop and practice alternative strategies for action,” he said.

“This is a long, resource-intensive process and therefore less welcome among politicians. But we need to be very clear: There is no shortcut in treating sex offenders by giving them a pill; it takes a whole lot more to change people.”

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Berlusconi’s death: How will Italy’s real-life Succession play out?

Berlusconi had two kids from his first wife, and three from his second. They will all inherit the empire the media tycoon built from scratch.

Five kids, grown in the shadow of their powerful, wealthy, ruthless father — a man whom the nation looks up to, who’s built a media empire that has hypnotised the entire country, and shaped its politics and destiny.

Five kids who have been raised with a sense of pride for the name they bear, but who have been haunted by one question their whole life: who’s going to be worthy of their father, who’s going to succeed them?

What sounds roughly like the plot of the popular TV show ‘Succession’ is actually the real-life story of Silvio Berlusconi’s five children, who now have to deal with the cumbersome legacy their father left behind.

Much like Logan Roy, the moody tycoon of the HBO show, Berlusconi came from a modest family — a clerk and a housewife — only to become one of the richest and most successful businessmen in his country.

His career began in construction in the 1970s, and continued in the world of television, which he completely revolutionised creating the country’s first private national channel, Canale 5. This would later be incorporated into Mediaset, a network comprising 3 of the 7 national channels — and a powerful instrument for an ambitious man who loved to be loved.

High on the success of his business investments, Berlusconi entered the world of politics, which he dominated for the next 30 years, covering three terms as Italy’s prime minister between 1994 and 2011 amidst scandals, corruption charges, and controversies. He created his own party, Forza Italia, which is currently in the right-wing coalition governing the country.

When Berlusconi’s health started turning for the worse on Monday, Marina (56) and Pier Silvio (54), from the media mogul’s first marriage to Carla Elvira Lucia Dall’Oglio; and Barbara (38), Eleonora (37), and Luigi (34), from his second marriage to Veronica Lario, rushed to his side.

They were there when the larger-than-life politician and businessman who had divided Italy’s public opinion for the last three decades died at the age of 86 on the same day, brought down not by his excesses and bravado, but by leukemia.

Berlusconi’s media empire and his party will now be passed on to them, his five legitimate children. All of them hold a stake in Fininvest, the multi-billion euro media company that the former prime minister created from scratch and which is currently the largest shareholder of Media for Europe, MFE.

The group owns the television network Mediaset and Mondadori, one of Italy’s biggest publishing houses.

Who will take over Berlusconi’s media empire?

Berlusconi’s children each hold a 7.65% stake in Fininvest, according to Italian news media. The media mogul controlled about 61% of holdings in the company, which will now have to be divided among his kids.

But while cynicism, ambition and greed can be learned, the same disposition and hunger for success, and the ability to achieve it that characterised Berlusconi, cannot be inherited. It’s the same lesson that Logan Roy’s kids are taught over and over in ‘Succession’.

None of Berlusconi’s children, who mostly shied away from the media spotlight, have the same energy that their father was able to bring to the Italian public. But at least one of them appears to have the same business instinct: the eldest child, Marina Berlusconi.

The 56-year-old is widely seen as Berlusconi’s natural successor, and people familiar with the matter told Reuters that she is, in fact, going to be inheriting her father’s media empire, though Berlusconi never formally named her his successor.

Together with her brother Pier Silvio, who was put in charge of Mediaset, Marina has been directly involved in running her father’s companies since he entered politics in the early 1990s. She had served as deputy chairperson at Fininvest for nine years and she’s been on the company’s board since 2005.

The three kids Berlusconi had with his second wife, on the other hand, have always been kept at a distance from the family’s company. Barbara and Eleonora have never been given any high-profile executive roles within either Fininvest or Mediaset, though Barbara once took a senior role in running the then-Berlusconi’s football club Milan until it got sold off in 2017.

Luigi, the youngest son, is a board member at Fininvest, representing his family’s side interests in the company together with Barbara. Eleonora is likely the least interested in her father’s legacy, considering she has chosen to give up her last name and goes under ‘Bartolini’, the real name of her mother Veronica Lario, born Miriam Bartolini.

Under Italian law, Berlusconi’s children have a right to inherit two-thirds of his wealth in equal parts — in Fininvest’s case, 8.13% of stakes in the company each. The remaining third can be disposed of as the deceased pleased — which means that Berlusconi could have decided, in his will, to distribute the remaining 33% stake in Fininvest to Marina and Pier Silvio, giving them more power in the company.

As of Tuesday, Berlusconi’s will has not yet been opened or made known to the public.

What is the future of Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia?

An even bigger question mark surrounds the issue of who will inherit the lead of Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia. Many, even within the party, fear that Forza Italia might be dead without Berlusconi, its members scuttling to other right-wing parties like the League of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

Giovanni Miccichè, a former Berlusconi ally who left Forza Italia to form his own party in 2010, said on Monday Forza Italia had died with the former premier.

But ultimately, the decision to keep the party alive belongs to Berlusconi’s kids, who are inheriting the responsibility of keeping Forza Italia going without the man who’s been its uncontested leader since its creation, and who’s funded the party for the past decade.

“The symbol of Berlusconi’sparty, Forza Italia, now belongs to his heirs – his children,” tweeted Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at the University of Surrey, in the UK.

“They are also the ones who would have the means to keep financing it – as [Berlusconi] continued to do throughout the years. Being a personal party, it is now part of [Berlusconi’s] legacy: just like his companies.”

However, Albertazzi said, “the party “was already in terminal decline” before Berlusconi’s death. 

“[Berlusconi’s] presence meant it could still attract some votes for a little longer, from people who had got used to supporting it during its golden years,” he tweeted.

“Even if [Berlusconi’s] children decided to keep it going, who’s there to attract votes now?” he added. “Not only he never chose a successor, but there is literally NO-ONE within it today – let alone his children – who has the vision, charisma & knowledge to take this huge task on and try to steady the ship.”

But Albertazzi thinks that Meloni, the current prime minister, will try to keep the party afloat for her own interest. “I would not be surprised if Meloni stepped in to steady the ship and lend a hand, as Forza Italia reps start running around like headless chickens fearing for their future,” he wrote. 

“In the immediate future, she does not need the aggravation of the party destabilising the govt by sliding into civil war, as its reps realise they ain’t returning to Parliament…” he added.

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Berlusconi’s death is Europe’s first populist’s final triumph

Unlike today’s autocrats who make grim threats against the institutions of the rule of law, Berlusconi brushed them aside in a light-hearted and smiling manner, with jokes, silk neckerchiefs, and catchy ditties — an authentic made-in-Italy product, ready to be exported, Giorgio Fruscione writes.

On Monday, Silvio Berlusconi departed from this world differently from the way he first appeared in our lives when he entered our living rooms through his TV stations, virtually sitting by our side while we ate dinner.

His 1994 public address declaring his “discesa in campo,” or descent into the field of politics, saw him make a further promise to be among the people, with the people, and for the people.

But for Berlusconi, the nearly three decades in politics would be thirty years he always lived above us.

His death was, perhaps, the only real thing he had done “as one of us”, one of the mantras of his political life, the one that in Italy gave rise to two malign trends of our politics: populism and anti-politics.

It is not completely true to say that with the death of Berlusconi, an era ends. The era that began with Berlusconi is more alive than ever.

A list of grievances amid the grieving

The populist rhetoric, the opening of the door and leaving it ajar for the extreme right, the hatred for independent journalists, the intolerance for judges, misogyny and measuring the value of women by the length of their skirts, rampant tax evasion and flirtations with autocrats halfway around the world — these are stronger today than they were in the early 1990s when the fear of the spectre of communism was still expanding.

Having come into the field to ward off the arrival of the communist enemy that had never been in power in Italy — nor would ever get anywhere near the offices in Chigi and Quirinale — Berlusconi used his economic power and a media monopoly to promote his own political initiative as a sacrifice in the name of the collective good, while the opposite was true: opportunism for personal gain.

This is not the place to recall his entrepreneurial background prior to his arrival in politics but rather the moment to consider Berlusconi as the precursor of authoritarianism as we know it today — that of Victor Orban, Donald Trump and, to a degree, even Vladimir Putin.

How much did normalising Putin cost us collectively?

It is no coincidence that Berlusconi considered the Russian president a great friend to the very end, swapping wine bottles even during the war and in defiance of sanctions.

After all, Berlusconi ended the “real one,” the actual Cold War — this, according to him — with the Pratica di Mare agreement between Russia and NATO during the 2002 Rome summit.

The handshake between George W Bush and Putin at the summit actually normalised relations between the West and Moscow, whose political methods became acceptable after that. So did Berlusconi’s.

When in 2008 Berlusconi mimed a machine gun in response to a journalist who dared to ask Putin a question, it was not just a joke — after all, Russian independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya had been murdered in Moscow only a year and a half earlier — but further legitimisation of an authoritarian system with which the West deluded itself into thinking it could live with by importing gas.

What we do in life echoes in eternity

The ripple effects of his influence on the political events of today are aplenty. And many of the political actors behind them are the spiritual heirs of Berlusconism, especially outside of Italy.

Isn’t the approach with which Trump is defending himself against ever-growing accusations by calling them “farcical” and politically motivated similar to that with which Berlusconi used to attack judges by calling them ”red togas”, a provocative reference to Roman Empire’s magistrates who held both judicial and executive powers?

Isn’t the control over state media and the main private channels by Victor Orban in Hungary a model set by Berlusconi, who ruled through three public television channels in parallel with his three Mediaset channels?

Aren’t attacks against independent journalists the prerogative of leaders who dream of their own “Bulgarian Edict”, a watershed moment for media freedom in Italy in 2002 when, during an official visit to Sofia, Berlusconi’s criticism got journalists Enzo Biagi, Michele Santoro and comedian Daniele Luttazzi removed from the air at the public broadcaster, RAI?

Doing what one wants and selling it as good for the people

Today, those mourning Berlusconi are mainly his followers and not his actual voters.

It is rather those leaders all over the world who, using the self-made man spiel, convey the same precarious assurances and illusory successes to the people.

All that just to leave them with higher public debt, tax evasion that remains legitimised and almost incentivised, and wages that stopped rising just as Berlusconi descended to the field to make us all better off.

But unlike today’s autocrats who make grim threats against the institutions of the rule of law, Berlusconi brushed them aside in a light-hearted and smiling manner, with jokes, silk neckerchiefs, and catchy ditties — an authentic made-in-Italy product, ready to be exported.

Berlusconism, after all, is doing what one wants and what is convenient for one’s business, finding a way around rules and institutions, and then propagandising all this as a universal and sustainable social and economic model.

It is the heavy-handed imposition of the private over the public, a form of liberalism where the increase in social divisions has been compounded by scorn towards the other gender.

It is the notion of a country-slash-enterprise ruled by a tycoon for the prime minister where women have been reduced exclusively to objects of pleasure, going to the parties at his villa San Martino in Arcore or dancing in prime time as various showgirls on his TV channels whose ratings corresponded to their appearance.

‘A great statesman, for better or worse’

In a country where, culturally and habitually, death turns anyone into a heroic martyr, the end of Berlusconi will not put an end to his way of doing politics, but it will monumentalise him in people’s memory as “a great statesman”.

It will historicise him, making him a man who “for better or worse” contributed to the country’s history.

And finally, it will humanise him, showing his Mediaset presenters’ live tears and flowers near the hospital in Milan where he passed away as the tangible sign of a man who was loved by the people not in spite of, but precisely because he stood above them, serving them for his own personal interests.

That is the social and political model that is now more entrenched than ever in Italy and beyond. And that is why Berlusconi’s death is not the end of an era, but his actual triumph.

Giorgio Fruscione is a political analyst and a freelance contributor to several domestic and international media outlets. He is a Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), with his analyses focusing mainly on Western Balkans politics and geopolitics.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Silvio Berlusconi, master populist who dominated Italian politics, dies at 86

Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon and four-time prime minister who brushed off a litany of legal battles and sex scandals to dominate Italian public life for more than two decades, has died in Milan aged 86.

Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II, Berlusconi had been admitted to Milan’s San Raffaele hospital on Friday for what aides said were pre-planned tests related to leukemia. His admission came just three weeks after he was discharged following a six-week stay at San Raffaele hospital, during which time doctors revealed he had a rare type of blood cancer.

His death was announced on June 12 by Italian media.

Long the country’s richest man, Berlusconi made his fortune in real estate before going on to build Italy’s biggest media empire, Mediaset, which he later enlisted to facilitate his swashbuckling entry into politics.

The scandal-plagued tycoon infamous for the debauchery of his “bunga bunga” parties transformed and monopolised Italian politics at the turn of the century, introducing a skewed left-right divide that pitted his conservative camp against the centre-left anti-Berlusconi front.

Known as “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight), among many other nicknames, he was admired and reviled in equal measure at home – but was mostly derided abroad. After a decade in power, The Economist magazine famously ran a cover story on his record in office with the headline, “The man who screwed an entire country”.

Despite the mockery, his unbounded bravado, unique brand of politics and tumultuous career became a playbook for ambitious politicians around the world, making him a precursor to contemporary populism.

Long before the likes of Donald Trump played the “anti-system” card, Berlusconi had successfully cast himself as the bête noire of a declining and discredited political class. Accused of being as narcissistic, sexist and self-serving as the billionaire former US president, Berlusconi also played an equally piteous victim, railing against the judiciary and once claiming he was “the most persecuted person in the history of the world and the history of man”.

He also played a more inveterate jester than Britain’s Boris Johnson, entertaining Italy as much as he ran it; a more polished macho than his friend Vladimir Putin, adding an affable, cultured touch to his personality cult; and a subtler strategist than Matteo Salvini, the loudmouthed nationalist who briefly supplanted him as leader of the country’s right-wing camp – only to be overtaken in turn by the far right’s Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s current prime minister and once a junior minister under Berlusconi.

The most talked-about Italian politician since Benito Mussolini, Berlusconi was once described as a “disease that can only be cured through vaccination” by the country’s most respected postwar journalist, the late Indro Montanelli. The vaccine, Montanelli argued on the eve of the 2001 general election, involved “a healthy injection of Berlusconi in the prime minister’s seat, Berlusconi in the president’s seat, Berlusconi in the pope’s seat or wherever else he may want. Only after that will we be immune.”

Montanelli was wrong about immunity, and so were the many other pundits who wrote off the Cavaliere, time and time again, even as his political career – and popularity – powered on.

The dream of America

Berlusconi was born on September 29, 1936, the first of three children raised in a middle-class family in Milan, Italy’s financial capital. Like many of his generation, he was evacuated during World War II and lived with his mother in a village some distance from the city.

The handsome and genial youth made his first money selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and occasionally singing in nightclubs and cruise ships with his friend Fedele Confalonieri, who would remain his loyal business partner to the very end.

After graduating in law in 1961, Berlusconi began a career in construction, establishing himself as a residential housing developer in the Milan area. He got his big break at the start of the 1970s with the construction of Milano 2, a self-contained town his Edilnord company built in the suburbs, soon to be followed by its twin, Milano 3.

With their artificial lakes, sports facilities, churches and shopping malls, Berlusconi’s model towns were designed as the Italian version of American suburbia – functional environments dedicated to work, leisure and watching television.

“I’m in favour of all things American before even knowing what they are,” Berlusconi once told Britain’s Times newspaper. His next challenge was to ensure his fellow Italians felt likewise, embracing American popular culture through soap operas, commercials and chat shows.

Milano 2 is where the Cavaliere built his media empire, Mediaset, launching Italy’s first private channels with the help of his politician friends, chief of whom was the powerful Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, a former prime minister whose name would later become synonymous with corruption.

The leafy suburb is also where Berlusconi’s own four-decade-long battle with the judiciary began in the late 1970s, with the first investigations into Edilnord’s shady funding. The cases were soon shelved, though it later emerged that the investigators had been given senior positions in Berlusconi’s Fininvest holding.

In the following years, several former mafia bosses were quoted as saying that Edilnord had received generous funding from criminal organisations based in Sicily, via Berlusconi’s close friend Marcello Dell’Utri, who was later convicted of collusion with the mafia in a separate case.

Berlusconi himself began feeling the heat in the early ’90s when a sweeping corruption investigation destroyed Italy’s Christian Democracy party, which had ruled the country since the war, along with his friend and protector Craxi. But instead of hiding in the shadows, the Cavaliere sensed an opportunity.

In 1992, at the height of the “Clean Hands” corruption inquiries, the media tycoon was asked whether he would consider running for mayor in his hometown of Milan, where a Berlusconi-owned football club won its 12th league title that year. His answer was an accurate forecast of the years to come.

“Do you know that every day I receive 400 letters from housewives thanking me for freeing them from their daily boredom with my television programmes?” Berlusconi replied. “If I entered politics with this electoral base, I wouldn’t go for mayor. I’d build a party like Reagan’s, win the elections and become prime minister.”

Go, Italy!

Two decades before France’s Emmanuel Macron seemingly pulled a political party out of his hat and conjured an Élysée Palace victory, Berlusconi, a media mogul with no political credentials, pulled the same trick in Italy – and in half the time. Staffed with marketing strategists in business suits, Forza Italia (Go, Italy) was just five months old when its founder swept to power in the spring of 1994 on promises of lower taxes, less encroachment from the state and restored pride in the Italian nation.

Hailed by his followers as “the Lord’s anointed”, the media mogul said he felt compelled to enter politics in order to bar the post-Communist left from power. Critics, however, claimed Berlusconi was primarily motivated by his desire to protect his own businesses – a critique borne out by the many bespoke laws his successive governments would force through parliament over the years.

While his first, grossly inexperienced government soon collapsed, the tycoon politician would go on to dominate Italian politics for the next two decades, bouncing back with further electoral triumphs in 2001 and 2008. Despite leading an unwieldy coalition with southern-based post-fascists and far-right Northern League separatists, he became the only prime minister to serve through a full five-year legislature, between 2001 and 2006 – no small achievement in a country that has known 67 different governments since 1945.

It would take a combination of the eurozone’s debt crisis, the loss of his parliamentary majority following a party split, and lurid accounts of “bunga bunga” orgies featuring showgirls and prostitutes at his private residence to finally push Berlusconi out of office – for the third and last time – in 2011, amid the jeers of protesters gathered in central Rome to celebrate his departure.

Earlier that year, Berlusconi suffered a major blow when Italy’s Constitutional Court struck down part of a law granting him temporary immunity. After years of being cleared of multiple charges – often because the statute of limitations had expired or because his government had changed the law, for instance decriminalising the practise of false accounting – his run of luck came to an end in 2012 when he was sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud and barred from public office.

But because Berlusconi was over 75 at the time, he was instead handed community service, working four hours a week with elderly dementia patients at a Catholic care home near Milan.

The next year, he was also found guilty of paying for sex with underage prostitute Karima “Ruby” El Mahroug, 17, a guest at his “bunga bunga” parties, and then abusing his power to have her released from jail. The conviction was later overturned, though Berlusconi faced further charges for allegedly bribing a witness in the trial.

In the meantime, his second wife Veronica Lario, with whom he had three of his five children, decided to divorce him after he was photographed at the 18th birthday party of an aspiring model who referred to him as “Papi”.

Berlusconi’s enduring support

Despite his rapidly declining fortunes, Berlusconi made another comeback ahead of the 2013 general election, overturning a 15-point gap in the polls to come within a whisker of a stunning election win. Though he was barred from office, the result cemented his role as the central powerbroker in Italian

Reflecting on the tycoon’s enduring support, Maurizio Cotta, a professor of politics at the University of Siena, said Berlusconi understood certain aspects of the Italian psyche better than anyone else. Berlusconi spoke “alla pancia” (to the stomach) of Italians, Cotta said. “He knew their weak spots – their fear of discipline, of the state, of losing their homes, of being caught with their hands in the till.”

When the head of aerospace giant Finmeccanica was arrested ahead of the 2013 election for bribing Indian officials to secure a huge helicopter contract, Berlusconi alone of all politicians blamed the magistrates for hurting Italian jobs. “Sometimes you simply cannot sell anything without a bribe,” he remarked.

Never mind the repeated trials, the laws passed to protect himself and his businesses, the lurid campaign jokes about how often a girl would “come” or the fact that he personally intervened to have Mahroug released from custody – claiming he thought she was the niece of Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak – almost a quarter of Italian voters still chose his party, and nearly a third backed his coalition.

“Berlusconi might cause every possible disaster, but he speaks the language and knows the interests of his ‘social bloc’,” wrote Perangelo Battista in the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s best-known daily, referring to the tax-averse small and medium-sized businesses that formed the backbone of his support.

At 81 and just 18 months after undergoing open-heart surgery, the Cavaliere was somehow back on his horse for the 2018 general election, still cobbling together unlikely coalitions and promising Italians a rosy future with unshakeable optimism. His party did reasonably well, though it was overtaken on the right by Salvini’s eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Lega party.

The next year, with his ban on public office lifted, Berlusconi won himself a seat in the European Parliament – 18 years after he delivered one of his most infamous lines there in a slur aimed at German MEP Martin Schulz.

“I know that in Italy there is a man producing a film on Nazi concentration camps,” Berlusconi said as he took over the EU’s rotating presidency in June 2003. “I shall put you forward for the role of a kapo (prison guard) – you would be perfect.”

Berlusconi went on to win yet another general election in September 2022 – this time as an unlikely junior partner in Italy’s most right-wing ruling coalition since Mussolini. From the get-go, he proved to be a troublesome ally for the far right’s Meloni, bragging about vodka gifts from Putin and blaming Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky for Russia’s unprovoked invasion of his country.

The man who claimed credit for “ending the Cold War” was in and out of hospital in his twilight years, battling a string of illnesses. His tenacity earned him another nickname – “the Immortal” – as well as the bipartisan respect that had eluded him throughout his career.

Three years before his final stay at Milan’s San Rafaele clinic, Berlusconi overcame a severe case of Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic. After testing positive for the deadly respiratory disease along with dozens of Sardinia jet-setters in August 2020, he responded with characteristic braggadocio.

“I’ve been diagnosed with one of the strongest viral loads in all of Italy,” he said in a phone call with supporters from his hospital bed in Milan. “It just goes to show I’m still the number one.”

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Viral TikTok video causes Italy to reckon with racism

A “culture of impunity” towards discrimination and the country’s failure to come to terms with its colonial past has fuelled racism, say experts.

Mahnoor Euceph was travelling on a train in Italy’s Milan when she suddenly noticed a group of women making fun of her boyfriend and his mother.

The American tourist filmed the incident on her phone and then published it on TikTok, where the clip soon went viral. 

“I was on the train from Lake Como to Milan on April 16th with my half-Chinese boyfriend, his Chinese mom, and his white dad. I am Pakistani. We are all American,” she wrote on the social media platform.

“I noticed these girls sitting across from us staring me down and laughing and speaking Italian. At first, I ignored it. Then I stared back at them,” she continued. 

Euceph says she then took a nap but when she woke up, the women had not stopped staring. 

“I asked them, ‘Is there a problem?’ They said, ‘No, there isn’t a problem’. At that point, they started saying ‘Ni hao (hello in Mandarin)!’ in an obnoxious, racist, loud voice, along with other things in Italian I couldn’t understand.”

Euceph said their taunts grew more aggressive until she took her phone and started filming. After that they slightly toned it down. 

“Never in my life have I experienced such blatant racism. My boyfriend said the same thing,” she wrote, adding other Asian friends had reached out to her, sharing similar experiences of racism in Italy and Europe.

The video has fuelled an ongoing national conversation on racism within Italy, with its society becoming increasingly multicultural in recent years, especially in the biggest cities.

How common are episodes of racism in Italy?

Episodes of racism are quite common in Italy, often sparking widespread public condemnation in their aftermath.

In February, during a popular music contest, volleyball player Paola Egonu, who was born in Italy to Nigerian parents, said the country is racist, “but it’s getting better“.

Only a few weeks ago, her optimism wasn’t shared by French former professional footballer Lilian Thuram, who told Italian TV channel La7 Italy is “much more racist than it used to be before this government was in power.” 

Thuram was talking about Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing coalition government, which won last year’s election.

Only last week, Turin filed 171 restraining orders against Juventus fans after they subjected rival football player Romelu Lukaku to racist chants.

However, the Italian government does not collect statistics about race and ethnicity, meaning there is less data on racism compared to other European countries. 

In 2021, some 60% of young people in Italy admitted to having some unconscious racist bias, as shown by a UNICEF poll. The survey also found that 74% of migrants interviewed by the agency reported had been subject to discrimination in Italy.

“There is a stronger awareness among recently settled communities and migrant communities about the growth, in the past two years, of episodes of daily racism,” Francesco Strazzari, professor in International Relations at the Pisa-based Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant’Anna, told Euronews. 

These incidents can be subtle, like a person subtly clutching their bag when they see a Black or Brown person entering a shop, or evident verbal and physical abuse.

“There have been recent episodes of totally gratuitous violence by far-right groups that intimidated migrants, and episodes of apparently unrelated street violence which still targeted migrants,” Strazzari said. 

“There was a case in Rome of a Roma mother carrying a baby, and the baby was harmed by someone passing by and shooting. And in these cases, it’s hard to clearly determine whether it’s a racist act or not.”

According to Strazzari, a culture of impunity has developed alongside recent racist episodes in Italy. 

There is racism that comes in the form of “public behaviour which hides behind mass behaviour or anonymity,” he said. 

The racist chant of Juventus fans against Lukaku is one example, while social media is flooded with “cynical comments written under a false name” every time a migrant boat sinks in the Mediterranean, he adds.

“These are… very widespread or common forms of racism that you see in Italy, which are not sanctioned in any way,” Strazzari said. “And this culture of impunity, I think, legitimates the fact that there are more intangible forms in daily life which escape the attention of the daily citizen, but shift the attention of those who experience them.”

One of the three women in Euceph’s video later reached out saying the situation had been misunderstood and their behaviour wasn’t racist. 

She apologised to her and her family, though the American tourist called it an attempt to manipulate the situation.

The ghost of Italy’s colonial past

Strazzari thinks Italy’s complex past and its official approach to history and identity impact debates around racism, as well as people’s attitudes. 

“Italy remains a country with a colonial past which was never properly addressed,” he said.

One of the worst massacres of the colonial period was committed by Italians in Ethiopia in February 1937, when an estimated 19,000 locals were murdered in what’s known as the Addis Ababa massacre. 

Italian forces in the East African country committed what would now be considered war crimes, including using chemical weapons. 

“Italy never formally apologised,” Strazzari said. “It’s important because Meloni visited Ethiopia recently.”

He pointed out that Rome had tried to reconcile with Ethiopia by returning the Obelisk of Axum, which was taken in 1937. 

While Italy’s President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro expressed displeasure and sorrow for the crimes perpetrated in Ethiopia during the war in 1997, there was never a formal apology.

The roots of racism in Italy are to be found in this unresolved past, Strazzari said. 

While Germany went through a process of scrutinising its history, values and identity after World War II, Italy “despite being another loser of the war, never had this kind of reckoning,” he said. 

“In Italy, there’s the beloved cliché that Italians are always ‘brava gente’ (good people) – who even during World War II or colonial times, were always animated by a sense of empathy.”

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Anonymous births – Italy’s latest controversy

In Italy, a woman who — for whatever reason — decides she can’t take care of her baby can leave it in a safe haven baby box, in complete anonymity. 

It’s increasingly rare for Italian women to choose this option, but it still happens. 

Over Easter, one woman decided to anonymously drop her baby boy into such a box at one of Milan’s biggest hospitals, Policlinico di Milano.

Many would say the event should have been private, as the concept of anonymity suggests. 

But it wasn’t. 

Instead, the name of the boy — Enea — and the letter that his mother left him with, were passed to the media by doctors, who called for the mother to change her mind and take her baby back.

Quoting the mother’s words that she loved her boy, but couldn’t take care of him, TV presenter Ezio Greggio — a well-known figure in Italy — published a video on social media offering the woman financial help to not “abandon” her baby. 

“A baby needs her real mother,” he said, sparking a backlash from adoptive parents worldwide. 

The fierce debate that followed focused on what freedom Italian women have over their bodies and pregnancy, despite existing legislation supporting their autonomy, at least on paper. Many others were simply baffled by the fact that anonymous births and safe haven baby boxes still existed at all in their country.

How come anonymous births and safe haven baby boxes are still a thing in Italy?

“In Italy, there’s always been the possibility, regulated by law, for women to leave their babies in the hospital at the time of birth,” Elisabetta Canitano, a gynaecologist and president of the abortion rights NGO Vita di Donna, told Euronews.

“It can be done in two ways: either the mother goes to the hospital before the birth and lets them know that she wants to give birth anonymously and leave the baby there, or she can say she wants to give birth anonymously once she’s recovered.”

At that point, hospital staff and social services get in touch with an adoptive family who will stand ready to pick up the baby after a period of 10 days given to the mother to reconsider her choice. 

“We don’t have any use for a safe haven baby box, as you can see,” Canitano said. “Women who don’t wish to keep their babies can safely and anonymously leave them with the hospital staff. And there’s an abundance of people willing to adopt these babies.” And yet, those baby boxes still exist.

The practice goes back a long way. 

Women were allowed to anonymously drop off their babies for adoption in 13th century Italy, when it was considered scandalous to have a child out of wedlock. Women left their babies in the “ruota”, a rotating wheel embedded in the wall of a “foundling institute” – usually linked to the Catholic Church – which would deliver the baby directly inside the building. 

Foundling institutes were children’s homes which offered shelter and education to abandoned infants, most of whom were illegitimate. Until about the end of the 20th century, it was shameful for a woman to give birth out of wedlock, and giving away the child was the only, desperate option left to women who wanted to avoid being publicly shunned from society.

The practice of using the “wheel” was very much alive in the 1940s and 1950s, but gradually lost relevance as norms around religion and having children out of wedlock changed. 

In the 1970s, Italy legalised abortion and birth control, allowing women to have greater control over their bodies and decide whether to have a baby or not.

Though it remained legal for a woman to give birth anonymously and have the hospital staff sign her baby’s birth certificates under Italian law, the foundling homes, which had caused so much shame and despair to many Italian women through the centuries, were finally closed.

But the “ruota” remained in Italy. 

In 2006, Italy’s anti-abortion movement reintroduced a more modern version through the “Culla per la vita” (cradle for life) project – a series of safe haven baby boxes installed across hospitals throughout the country.

Is leaving your baby a common practice?

Not really. About 300 women give birth anonymously in Italy every year, according to estimates from the Italian Society of Neonatology, while the number of those using safe haven baby boxes is much lower.

Only three newborns, including Enea, have been left at the Clinica Mangiagalli baby box in Milan. The first was in 2012, the second in 2016 and the third in 2023.

The boxes themselves are heated, constantly monitored and 24/7. An alarm for doctors inside the hospital goes off the moment a baby is dropped inside. In Enea’s case, the alarm rang on Easter day at 11:40 am. 

How do Italians feel about it?

Safe haven boxes are hotly contested in Italy, especially between pro-abortion and anti-abortion groups.

“If you ask me, the problem is that we have this all-Mediterranean ambivalence towards these women,” Canitano said. 

“On the one hand, we know they have a right to give birth anonymously. On the other hand, we think that women shouldn’t leave their children to our institutions, because we judge them morally for it.”

“Cradle for life” is just “anti-abortion propaganda to tell women that they should keep their children,” she continued. “Instead of informing women about the option of giving birth anonymously in the hospital, these groups advertise the cradles for life.”

For Canitano, the safe haven baby boxes are symptomatic of difficult economic conditions. 

“They want us to have children when we’re poor, because women have lost so many jobs with the Jobs Act [a reform passed by Matteo Renzi’s government in 2014 aimed at making the labour market more flexible].” 

Without fixed-term contracts, it’s harder for Italian women to be into work while they’re pregnant, she added. 

“What do you do if you don’t have a job, or you don’t have a house? There’s this idea that you should have children when you’re living in misery. We don’t support women, but we want them to be mothers.”

On the other hand, anti-abortion groups and supporters claim a “Cradle for life” offers a much-needed alternative to women who want to carry out their pregnancy but are unable, for whatever reason, to take care of a baby, especially if feel uneasy communicating their decision to the hospital staff. 

Baby boxes are also a feasible solution to the problems of infanticide and child abandonment, they say. 

According to the latest estimates by the Italian NGO Friends of the Children, roughly 3,000 babies are abandoned in Italy every year, either left out in the streets, dumped in the bin, or even thrown out of windows. 

One reason why only a minority of women rely on their right to give birth anonymously is that many don’t know about it, while others fear causing an uproar like in the case of Enea, which shows stigma still exists towards mothers who put their children up for adoption in Italy.

“The media hype around the newborn surrendered to the cradle for life is proof that, in Italy, a woman’s right to choose for herself is significantly limited, even when they act within their legal rights and do something that normally should be praised,” journalist Jennifer Guerra told Euronews. 

“In Ezio Greggio’s words, as in the words of the doctors who intervened in the case, it transpires the idea that there’s an unbreakable bond between biological mother and child, a bond which is superior to any other circumstance […]. We don’t know the reason why this woman took that decision, even though everyone took for granted that she had financial difficulties.” 

She added: “Whatever her choice she would have made, we know it would have been stigmatised, disrespected and judged by the entire country.”

Like gynaecologist and NGO leader Canitano, Guerra thinks the story has been instrumentalised by anti-abortion groups to promote cradles for life as an alternative to abortion. 

But the whole issue of giving birth anonymously itself still creates controversy.

One of key issue identified by critics is that because it protects the anonymity of the mother, it prevents the child from accessing key medical information which could be lifesaving under certain circumstances.

Another issue is that the practice, as highlighted by researcher Valentina Colcelli, contradicts the Italian legal system, which gives a newborn the right to know their origin. 

The law currently recognises an “absolute” right to anonymity for the mother giving up her child.

The press team of the Policlinico di Milano declined to comment on the issue.

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‘Weapon of mass distraction’: What’s up with Italy’s oddball policies?

First came a controversial crackdown on rave parties. Then, a ban on the much-debated ChatGPT chatbot, the first of its kind across the world, followed by a ban on synthetic meat. Finally, a plan to issue hefty fines for using English words in official communications — which many people initially thought was an April Fool’s joke, but turned out to be real. 

After Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government pushed forward a series of unlikely policies in the past few months, some people have been left scratching their heads wondering: what’s really going on with Italy’s leadership, and these oddball policies?

Francesco Strazzari, professor in International Relations at the Pisa-based Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant’Anna, told Euronews that the recent wave of improbable legislation passed by Meloni’s government is “a weapon of mass distraction.”

As Italy faces serious issues which are currently shared with many European countries, like a lingering energy and cost-of-living crisis and a growing flow of migration to its southern shores, these somewhat petty legislative initiatives have the ability to spark endless debates on social media and among the Italian public – even if only to ridicule the government.

“Every time Meloni’s government is in a difficult moment, it comes up with controversial policies which have the power of deflecting attention from its poor performance and its disastrous policies,” Strazzari said.

What bigger issues hide behind these “shallow policies”?

When the Italian government passed a law banning illegal rave parties last November, it did so despite the fact there was no urgency for such a law, Strazzari told Euronews, as the issue didn’t pose an immediate challenge to the country and could have been solved in due time. 

“But there was a strong attempt to inflate the ban, in terms of public attention, in the face of looming danger — a new law surrounding the search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, around which there were already strong arguments,” Strazzari said.

Shortly after the rave ban, Meloni’s government passed a law forbidding NGOs’ search and rescue ships from embarking on more than one operation at a time and forcing them to disembark in the harbours indicated by authorities, which Strazzari said they’re usually “very remote.” 

This decree-law, which significantly limits the operation capacity of NGOs’ search and rescue ships, has already caused tense situations in the Mediterranean between NGOs and Italian authorities.

The most recent policies surrounding ChatGPT, synthetic meat, and the use of English and foreign words in official communications came at a time when a very serious debate around the country’s prison system and sentences is unfolding in Italy, rekindled by inmate Alfredo Cospito’s hunger strike.

According to Strazzari, the harsh punishment imposed on Cospito, an Italian anarchist serving a strict prison regime usually reserved for mafia bosses, is “very controversial in terms of international norms, because in rule-of-law countries the severity of a sentence has to be measured in terms of time length, not imprisonment conditions.”

But instead of addressing complex, long-term challenges like the ones posed by Cospito’s hunger strike or migrant arrivals on the Italian shores, Meloni’s government has focused its legislative efforts on a series of policies “in the name of cultural nationalism, […] an idea of the nation as something that is not negotiable, that exists in purity in some idyllic past, against contamination from migrants, anarchists, and the food industry,” said Strazzari.

The debate around these nationalist policies once again works as a distraction from much more consequential — and controversial — new laws that Meloni’s government is trying to pass — like a bill criminalising surrogacy done abroad.

Last month, the Italian parliament started discussing a controversial law which would extend Italy’s long-standing surrogacy ban on couples travelling abroad for the procedure to countries like the US, Canada, and India. Under the proposed law, sponsored by Brothers of Italy and the League, those found seeking a surrogate mother for their babies abroad could be imprisoned for a time between three months and two years or face fines between 600,000 and 1 million euros. 

For same-sex couples trying to have a baby through surrogacy, the law would be extremely damaging.

A sovereign push that’s likely to put Italy against the European Union

The recent controversial policies introduced by Meloni’s government are not only a game of smoke and mirrors: these legislative efforts are also “well in line with the party’s ideology,” Marianna Griffini, lecturer in the Department of European and International Studies at King’s College London, told Euronews. 

“Meloni’s party is one pushing for Italy’s sovereignty, and these policies are sending the message: ‘Do not interfere with our domestic affairs,’ even if it’s only about cultural affairs, cultural sovereignty,” she said. The recipient of this message? The EU.

Italy’s ban on synthetic meat, Griffini said, can be seen as a way for Italy to reclaim sovereignty over the EU for matters related to its food, after the EU had already given the green light to lab-grown meat in the bloc.

Griffini isn’t the only one to see it this way. For Strazzari, Meloni’s government’s “ridiculous” policies “mobilising shallow calls to national identity and national rhetoric” all lead in the direction of a sovereign push whose ultimate goal is to wriggle out of the European Union’s control — following the footsteps of Poland and Hungary.

“There’s a clear way in which Meloni is trying to benefit from the shifting of the very centre of European politics towards the East with the war in Ukraine […], a shift which has given more gravity to Poland and Hungary,” Strazzari said. “[These countries] are second to no one when it comes to social conservatism and nationalism — especially Poland, with its stress on the traditional family and Catholicism.”

Because of its anti-LGBT policies, Poland has entered in contrast with the EU over the question of the primacy of national law over EU law — an issue that has been raised by Meloni before she even came into power last year.

In 2018, when Meloni was still in the opposition, the far-right politician was the first signatory of a legislative proposal which asked for modifying two articles of the Italian constitution which state that Italy recognises the primacy of European law over national law. “That proposal is still there,” Strazzari said. “It hasn’t been discussed but it hasn’t been withdrawn either — it’s kind of frozen there.”

According to Strazzari, there’s now “an attempt to find congruence” in Italy with Poland and Hungary in terms of introducing nationalist policies which have the potential to go against the EU’s recognised fundamental rights. The proposed surrogacy ban is an example of this initiative.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Antonio Tajani, who served as president of the European Parliament from 2017 and 2019, recently commented on the European Parliament’s criticism of Meloni’s government for the introduction of a law that could ban surrogacy for Italians travelling abroad to have the procedure saying  that “Italy’s regulations are made in Italy, not in Brussels.”

“It’s quite a stunning declaration on the part of someone who was the head of the European Parliament and knows pretty well what are the prerogatives of the EU Parliament, which is elected by Italians, among others. We delegate parts of our sovereignty to that Parliament,” Strazzari said. “But this statement was rather blunt in rejecting criticism coming from the Parliament. […] This raises alert from a European point of view.”

But Griffini sees Meloni’s government’s sovereign efforts simply as “symbolic battles” rather than a real attempt to rebel against the EU. “There is too much at stake,” Griffini said. “There are the famous national recovery and resilience plan’s funds at stake, so I don’t think that the relationship with the EU will come to the point of outward hostility.”

Italy’s recovery plan, which followed the unprecedented crisis of the pandemic, consists of 132 investments and 58 reforms and is supported by €68.9 billion in grants and €122.6 billion in loans to the country.

“Italy still needs this money,” Griffini said. 

“During her campaign, Meloni turned down her Euro-scepticism, and a glaring example of this is that her first state visit was to the EU, when she met Ursula von der Leyen. It’s unlikely that she will fully rebel against the EU. These policies seem more symbolic than anything.”

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Why Elly Schlein is freaking out Italy’s ‘soft’ socialists

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Right-wing hardliners could not dream of an easier target than Elly Schlein, the new leader of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party (PD).

A global citizen with a female partner and an upper-middle-class upbringing, the youngest and first female leader of Italy’s most-established progressive party has sparked the ire of the country’s conservatives.

“CommunistElly,” the right-wing newspaper Il Tempo dubbed her after the leadership contest was decided on Sunday. Schlein defeated the favorite Stefano Bonaccini with 53.8 percent to 46.2 percent of the vote.

Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s allies have been relishing the polarization around Schlein — the two political leaders, though both female, stand for very different values.

“She promised to prioritize the poor, public education and workers,” right-wing commentator Italo Bocchino said in attacking Schlein. “But unlike Meloni, she has never known the poor in her life,” he continued, pointing out how she attended a private school “for rich people” in Switzerland. Nor can Schlein know workers “as she’s never worked in her life,” he ranted.

Schlein’s surprise win has not only fired up her opponents, but also unsettled many in her own party. Fellow social democrats are spooked that Schlein could transform the PD from the broad progressive church it’s historically been into a much more radical sect.

There’s also concern about whether she’ll stand by the party’s support for sending lethal weapons to Ukraine given her self-described pacifist views.

Most skeptics are clinging on — for now — although a few have already jumped ship.

“The PD is over,” declared David Allegranti, a journalist for the Florence daily La Nazione. The expert on the Italian center-left argues that Schlein and many of her allies hail from leftist splinter groups and were not members of the PD until barely a few months ago — discrediting them in their critics’ eyes.

Ex-Cabinet minister Giuseppe Fioroni, among the founding members of the PD, told POLITICO: “Her project has nothing to do with my history and my political culture.” Having foreseen the outcome, Fioroni left the party one day before Schlein’s victory was announced. “My PD is no longer there, this is another party — it no longer belongs to the center left, but to the hard left,” he said.

As a youth leader in 2013, Schlein became the figurehead of Occupy PD, a protest movement set up by disaffected progressives angered over 101 center-left parliamentarians who voted against their own social democrat grandee Romano Prodi’s bid to become the president of Italy.

“With Elly Schlein, the PD has occupied itself,” quipped Allegranti.

Ex-Cabinet minister and PD founding member Giuseppe Fioroni left the party one day before Schlein’s victory, saying that the party “no longer belongs to the center left, but to the hard left” | Claudio Peri/EPA

The young radical

The daughter of a Swiss-based political scientist couple (one Italian and one American), Schlein was raised in Lugano, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, and spent her teens writing film reviews — her dream at the time was to become a film director — as well as playing the board game “Trivial Pursuit” and the cult 90s video game “The Secret of Monkey Island.”

Her first stint in politics came in 2008, when she cut her teeth working as a volunteer for Barack Obama’s two U.S. presidential election campaigns — heading to Chicago to do so.

“Here, I understood that you don’t need to ask for votes, but mobilize people with ideas,” she recalled to La Repubblica. A decade on, the lesson proved useful for her own leadership campaign.

In a first for the PD’s leadership contests, Schlein won the open ballot after losing by a wide margin in the caucus with party members the week before, demonstrating her capacity to win over voters.

The newly elected leader gained the upper hand over Bonaccini in big cities such as Milan, Turin and Naples, as well as performing well almost everywhere north of Rome — but lost in most southern regions, according to pollster YouTrend.

“There was a wave of support that brought along different kinds of voters, who were united by a strong desire for change,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, the founder of YouTrend.

However, Pregliasco played down reports of a “youthquake,” and described the leadership campaign as “boring, dull and largely ignored by public opinion.”

End of the party, or a new beginning?

While there are no exact figures on voter turnout available, Italian media reports that around 1.2 million people cast their ballots — which would mark the lowest figures since PD party primaries were first held in 2007.

After becoming a member of the European Parliament with the Socialists & Democrats group in 2014 at the age of 28, Schlein took the unexpected decision to abandon the PD a year later, accusing then-prime minister and PD party leader Matteo Renzi of lurching to the right.

The decision turned out to be prophetic, as Renzi suffered a number of electoral defeats that snowballed into his resignation as prime minister in 2016, and as party leader in 2018.

Pippo Civati, a former parliamentarian and longtime ally of Schlein who is now out of politics, recalled of Schlein in 2015: “We left at the same time because he [Renzi] was making one mess after another.”

Speaking to POLITICO, Civati warned that the newly elected leader could end up having her hands tied by party bigwigs who backed the popular politician without necessarily having any genuine commitment to her radical ideas.

Pundits point out that the conflict in Ukraine could be the trickiest issue for Schlein, whose distant ancestors hail from a village close to modern-day Lviv. There are question marks over whether she will carry forward her predecessor Enrico Letta’s all-out support for the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine.

A U-turn by Schlein on support for Ukraine would leave Meloni as the only national party leader in favor of sending arms to the besieged country, fueling concerns among Western allies who see Italy as a weak link.

“A change of line over Ukraine could be the trigger for many centrists to leave the PD,” Allegranti said.

But Civati played down rumors of an about-face, arguing that Schlein is unlikely to oppose the sending of arms to Ukraine.

“We support Ukraine’s right to defend itself, through every form of assistance,” said Schlein in a recent interview with broadcaster La7. “But as a pacifist, I don’t think that weapons alone will end the war.”

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