Italy’s far-right leader is shocking markets

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Antonio Masiello | Getty Images News | Getty Images

After plunging into the political mainstream and winning over her more moderate counterparts in Brussels, hardline Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is now shaking things up on home soil.

Europe’s main banking index dropped some 2.7% on Aug. 8 after Italy announced it would impose a 40% windfall tax on banks. The surprise move, which clearly caught traders off guard, was toned down within 24 hours.

Airlines have rebuffed other policy measures, with a new government plan to curb prices when flying to certain destinations. The Italian government is meeting airline executives next month and the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is already assessing whether the measure would comply with EU law.

Meloni was elected in October and, as well as being the country’s first female PM, is also the first from a far-right party since the end of World War II. So far during her mandate, Meloni has largely fallen in line with mainstream political positions at home and abroad, despite concerns from some that she may push her country to the fringes. She has not been at odds with officials at the European Union, for example. She has also made sure Italy has been a key supporter of Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the fact that some of her cabinet members have had close ties to the Kremlin.

Federico Santi, a senior analyst at consultancy Eurasia Group, told CNBC via email that her backtrack on the windfall tax “was a major misstep, in perception and substance.”

“This poorly-thought through measure was an abrupt reminder that Meloni’s government is mainly made up of right-wing populist parties, with a track record of erratic economic policy-making,” Santi said, adding however that he expects Meloni to “stay the course” on the fundamental aspects of government policy.

Erik Jones, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy, told CNBC he didn’t believe this was a more “populist” government than that witnessed over the past year, with Meloni and her finance minister, Giancarlo Giorgetti, trying to spend without running up huge deficits.

“On fiscal policy, even in the absence of binding EU rules, which remain suspended, the government has made efforts to continue a gradual fiscal adjustment, in line with EU recommendations – i.e. by keeping the deficit and debt on a, slowly, declining path and avoiding broad-based expansion that could feed inflation,” Eurasia Group’s Santi said.

Italy’s government debt-to-GDP stood at 144.4% in 2022, according to data from the International Monetary Fund. That’s expected to drop to 140.5% this year and then again to 138.8% in 2024. The Italian economy is seen growing at a rate of 1.1% this year and 0.9% in 2024, according to the IMF. This represents a fall from the 3.7% gross domestic product registered in 2022.

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