The prospect of a Eurosceptic, populist government in Italy has sparked concern in Brussels

Rome (AFP) - New Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni outlined her programme for government on Tuesday, reaffirming her support for the EU, NATO and Ukraine and presenting herself as a steady hand to guide her country through turbulent times.

One month after her far-right Brothers of Italy party won general elections, Meloni used her inaugural speech to parliament to seek to allay concerns she will guide the eurozone’s third largest economy down a radical new path.

“Italy is fully part of Europe and the Western world,” the 45-year-old told the lower house, adding that it would “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Meloni, who was sworn in as Italy’s first woman premier on Saturday, denied accusations she will restrict civil rights and said she had “never felt sympathy or closeness to undemocratic regimes… including Fascism.”

The prospect of a Eurosceptic, populist government in Italy – a founding member of NATO and the European Union – had sparked concern among its allies, particularly in Brussels.

Meloni strongly backs EU sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine, but her coalition ally Silvio Berlusconi last week was recorded defending his old friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Italy was heavily dependent on Russian gas before the war and is currently battling soaring inflation, fuelled by sky-high energy bills, which risks sparking a recession next year.

On Tuesday, Meloni said the country was “in the midst of a storm.”

She said her priority was to help businesses and households cope and to continue find new sources of energy, saying she would not give in to “Putin’s blackmail.”

The new government won a vote of confidence in the lower house of parliament after Meloni’s speech, which will be followed by another in the Senate on Wednesday.

Meloni has a comfortable majority in parliament thanks to her coalition with Berlusconi's Forza Italia

The votes are largely procedural as she has a comfortable majority in parliament thanks to her coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and Matteo Salvini’s far-right League.

- Traditional conservative -

In a speech lasting more than an hour, Meloni promised to cut taxes for businesses and families while simplifying bureaucracy to encourage investment, and also announced a one-off tax amnesty.

She said “lasting and structural growth” was the answer to reducing Italy’s debt – forecast to be 145 percent of gross domestic product this year, the highest ratio in the eurozone after Greece.

But Giuseppe Conte, former premier and leader of the opposition Five Star Movement, accused her of “empty rhetoric”, saying there were no concrete solutions to the cost-of-living crisis.

Former premier Mario Draghi was one of the strongest EU supporters of sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine

Meloni also warned that help for energy bills would “drain” much of the available funds and other unspecified spending projects would have to be postponed.

Lorenzo Codogno, a political analyst and former head economist at Italy’s treasury, said her speech suggested she would lead “more of a traditional conservative government than a radical far-right spin-off”.

He noted she said Italy will fully respect EU budget rules, even if she will work to try to change them.

Key to Italy’s future growth is almost 200 billion euros ($197 billion) in grants and loans from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, which depend on Rome implementing major reforms, from criminal justice to public administration.

Meloni said the money was “an extraordinary opportunity to modernise Italy”, but said she would seek “adjustments” to the plan to take into account the rising cost of energy and raw materials.

- Underdog -

Meloni’s party, which has neo-fascist roots, had never before been in power and her own government experience is limited to serving as youth minister under Berlusconi in the 2000s.

“I am what the British would call an ‘underdog’,” she said Tuesday, saying she intended to “defy all predictions”.

In a bid to reassure investors, she has appointed as economy minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, a relatively moderate member of the League who was economic development minister in Mario Draghi’s outgoing government.

Roberto Cingolani, who served as energy minister and helped reduce Italy’s reliance on Russian gas from 40 percent to 10 percent since the Ukraine war began, will also stay on as an adviser.

However tensions within her coalition had led many commentators to predict it may go the way of many others in Italy, which has had almost 70 governments since 1946.

Salvini – the new deputy prime minister who is also in charge of infrastructure and transport – risked upstaging Meloni’s speech by setting out his own programme for government on Monday.

In a series of tweets, the League leader committed himself among other policies to building a long discussed – and hugely costly – bridge between mainland Italy and Sicily, which he said would create 100,000 jobs.