The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, was isolated, the sole holdout to a landmark European Union fund for Ukraine worth billions. As pressure mounted on him on the eve of an emergency E.U. summit last week, he needed someone to talk to.
Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, who had long shared his antagonism to the E.U, was that sympathetic ear.
Over drinks for an hour, Mr. Orban complained about being treated unfairly by the E.U. for his hard-right politics. A hard-right leader herself, Ms. Meloni told him that she too had felt the prejudice. But, she said, instead of attacking the E.U., she had tried to work with it in good faith, according to a European official with knowledge of the discussion. That approach, she argued, obliged the E.U. to engage her, too, and in the end, it came through for her by agreeing that Italy had complied with requirements for the release of billions of euros in Covid relief funds.
Mr. Orban ultimately agreed to the Ukraine deal. It was a big moment for Europe. But it was also a big moment for Ms. Meloni — who sealed her credibility as someone who could play an influential role in the top tier of European leaders.
When Ms. Meloni became Italy’s leader in October 2022, many in Brussels worried she would be a disruptive force. Instead, as the Orban episode showed, she has positioned herself as a hard-right leader who can speak to those on the farther right. As Europe tilts more and more right, it is a remedy E.U. leaders may need more of in coming years.
“She likes to act like a bridge,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome.
Mr. D’Alimonte said Ms. Meloni had “made a radical change,” from being an anti-E.U. ideologue to a pragmatic pro-E.U. leader who understands she needs “all the help she can get” from the European Union, with which Italy is by now inseparably intertwined.
But he said Ms. Meloni was moving mainstream only “to a point,” and still had a vision for Europe that rebalanced powers away from Brussels, and that she sought leverage in upcoming European elections in June to make that happen.
Even so, in many ways, Ms. Meloni has put the European establishment at ease. She has proved to be rock-ribbed on the question of Ukraine, aligned herself with the United States and NATO and withdrawn Italy from China’s vast plan of economic expansion into Europe.
She has toned down her anti-E.U. vitriol and muted any talk of leaving the euro or breaking with the bloc, as have some other hard-right parties and leaders in a post-Brexit universe where the option has shown itself to be far less appealing. The AfD in Germany, from which Ms. Meloni says she is separated by “insurmountable distances” is a notable exception.
On other issues, like migration, much of Europe has come around to her harder line. She worked with the E.U.to seek a deal with Tunisia to keep migrants from coming. In recent days, she hosted a summit of African leaders in Rome to both help find alternative energy resources for Europe and stop migration at the source.
Her burst of European activity does not seem to have tarnished her reputation with other right-wing leaders who are eager to show wary voters that they too can play nice with the establishment.
Marine Le Pen, a hard-right leader in France, has already toned down her support of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and her own anti-E.U. language ahead of new elections in 2027. Ms. Meloni has called the evolution of her position on Russia — which is to say her distancing from Mr. Putin — “interesting.”
Nicola Procaccini, a European Parliament member with Ms. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, said that a rightward tilt of Europe would only make Ms. Meloni a more important center of gravity.
Mr. Procaccini, who is the co-chair of the group of right-wing parties in Brussels that Ms. Meloni leads, said it also helped her that “among the big European nations, the Italian government is perhaps the most stable.”
He pointed out that Emmanuel Macron of France could not run again and argued that left-leaning German government “is very weak,” he said, and the far-left government in Spain was “extremely weak.”
“So in this moment the Italian government is the most solid and this is an advantage,” he said.
Ms. Meloni’s growing footprint in Europe is rooted in strong support back home that has only grown stronger since she took office in October 2022. She has consolidated support in polls and influence within her own coalition.
The death of Silvio Berlusconi removed a mercurial partner sympathetic to Mr. Putin and fond of causing her headaches. Her other coalition partner, the once wildly popular Matteo Salvini, seems very much yesterday’s news as he scrambles to win support on the far-right margins where Ms. Meloni is viewed as a native daughter.
Her left-wing opposition is in disarray. It argued that she is still the same hard-right ideologue as ever — pointing to her proposal to make surrogacy a universal crime for Italians and to reform the constitution to give the prime minister greater powers. But it has failed to gain traction with voters.
Experts have bemoaned the general incompetence of the governing class around Ms. Meloni, pointing to embarrassing missteps like a windfall tax on the extra profits banks made from inflation, which was quickly walked back.
While they note that Ms. Meloni has done little in the way of real reforms, she has nevertheless, they also say, proved pragmatic, provided stability and moved away from her past populist and inflammatory rhetoric.
Despite an ideological background that loathes globalization, Ms. Meloni has paid heed to international markets. After years bashing the E.U. leadership, she is working closely with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.
Ms. von der Leyen belongs to the European People’s Party, a large group of more mainstream European conservatives. Ms. Meloni instead leads the European Conservatives and Reformists, a rival group of hard-right parties including the Spanish hard-right party, Vox, and Poland’s Law and Justice party, which are both coming off humiliating electoral defeats which suggest the limited appeal of a far-right agenda.
Asked whether Mr. Orban’s party, which quit the EPP after the European Commission cracked down on him, is considering joining Ms. Meloni’s group, Mr. Procaccini said “It’s possible.” He added, “Meloni is one of the few people who can speak with Viktor Orban.”
Upcoming and important elections for Commission president, in which Ms. von der Leyen is expected to stand for re-election, will be an important measure of the ideological orientation of Europe, but also of Ms. Meloni’s ambitions in it.
She did not support Ms. von der Leyen in 2019, when she led a smaller and louder opposition party, but this time she has much to gain by working with the re-elected commission president, and she is widely expected to either vote for, or not stand in the way of, Ms. von der Leyen’s re-election.
In that case, Ms. Meloni will almost certainly nominate an Italian ally to the powerful commission, earning more sway for Italy in Brussels,and more influence for herself.
Analysts say she is likely to emerge with more leverage, especially if her support for Ms. von der Leyen proves pivotal.
With a more leading role in Europe, Mr. Procaccini said, Ms. Meloni would work to roll back the European Green Deal, a set of sustainable policies against climate change that she has called “climate fundamentalism” and which is prompting protests by farmers across Europe.
She would keep pushing for tougher border controls and want Europe to work together on big strategic issues, but more often butt out of national affairs.
“She will use sovereignist rhetoric to rebalance the power between the union and member states and in favor of the states,” said Mr. D’Alimonte, “but not to the point of breaking up the union.”