Populist Promises and Neoliberal Practices of Milei and Meloni

Their friendship has been characterized by frequent praise, but the foundation of their relationship goes beyond mere ideological kinship.

by Faruk Imamovic
Populist Promises and Neoliberal Practices of Milei and Meloni
© Getty Images/Marcelo Endelli

When far-right “outsider” Javier Milei was elected Argentina’s president in November, one of the first leaders to congratulate him was Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. This mutual admiration was further solidified when Milei made Italy his first European destination as president in February.

Their friendship has been characterized by frequent praise, but the foundation of their relationship goes beyond mere ideological kinship.

Shared Views, Divergent Paths

Meloni and Milei share many hard-right views, such as opposition to abortion and hostility towards the LGBT community.

Both are socially conservative populists who tap into their nations' growing discontent with establishment politicians accused of serving “globalist forces”. Yet, their political ideologies are far from identical.

Meloni’s party is rooted in a statist, nationalist tradition with links to fascism, while Milei identifies as a libertarian and anarcho-capitalist. Meloni’s administration focuses on curbing immigration, a priority Milei largely ignores.

The bond between these leaders seems less about shared beliefs and more about their alignment with a hypocritical form of “neoliberal populism” that ultimately serves Western imperial interests. A closer examination of their policies reveals the neoliberal underpinnings of their supposedly populist stances.

The Reality of Milei's Presidency

Milei’s presidential campaign rode on the back of widespread anger over Argentina's prolonged economic crises and rampant corruption. His slogan, “out with all of them,” targeted the Argentinian elite and traditional politicians.

Promising to reduce state spending through privatization, cut inflation, and put money back into the pockets of Argentinians, Milei's rhetoric was populist. However, his actions in office have resulted in increased hardship for ordinary Argentinians while benefiting the elite.

Upon taking office, Milei slashed state subsidies for fuel and transportation, proposed severe cuts to the budget for public universities, and pursued labor reforms aimed at stripping workers of basic rights. His administration has also closed state agencies, fired thousands of officials, and reduced pensions and salaries to attract investors.

These measures, praised by the International Monetary Fund for their “ambitious stabilisation plan,” have left many Argentinians questioning the populist nature of Milei’s policies as they endure the brunt of his radical economic agenda.

Meloni's Questionable Populism

Similarly, Meloni’s populist credentials have come under scrutiny. In August, she imposed a one-off 40 percent tax on bank profits from higher interest rates, positioning herself against the banking sector.

This move initially gained her considerable praise. However, after a warning from the European Central Bank and backlash from the banking lobby, Meloni significantly diluted the tax, aligning once again with neoliberal interests.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni© Getty Images/Antonio Masiello

This was not Meloni’s first about-face concerning Italy’s banks. Before the 2022 elections, she and her party, Fratelli d’Italia, campaigned against the recapitalization of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Italy’s oldest bank.

Yet, upon taking power, they reversed their stance and supported its privatization. More recently, Meloni announced plans to raise about 20 billion euros by selling off Italy’s prized national enterprises, including the national railways and postal service.

This pivot away from her protectionist campaign promises has left many of her supporters disillusioned.

Foreign Policy Contradictions

On the international stage, Milei and Meloni’s policies reveal further contradictions.

Milei’s foreign policy is staunchly neoliberal. He is hostile towards China, unwaveringly supports the US, and is a self-proclaimed “fanatic of Israel”. His black-and-white worldview pits the moral and free West against a supposed threat from communists and socialists.

Conversely, Meloni, while vocally advocating for Italian independence and strength, rarely acts in ways that might upset the US. In her 2021 book, I am Giorgia, Meloni advocated for a better relationship with Russia. However, once in power, she quickly adopted Washington’s anti-Russia stance, aligning herself with US policies on the war in Ukraine and Israel’s actions in Gaza.

This shift highlights a transition from the populist Meloni who won the election to a neoliberal Meloni who governs Italy to secure benefits from the global military-industrial complex. Meloni has also demonstrated a significant shift in her approach to Europe.

Once a staunch eurosceptic, she now aligns closely with hawkish European leaders like Ursula von der Leyen. While she occasionally criticizes European rigidity concerning Italian debt, these critiques rarely lead to substantive actions, exposing the superficiality of her populist stance.

A Shared Neoliberal Agenda

Today, both Italy and Argentina face significant challenges, from rising living costs and deteriorating social services to high unemployment and limited prospects for young people. There is a clear demand in both countries for a populist overhaul of the system.

However, instead of addressing these pressing issues, Milei and Meloni seem more focused on countering imagined threats from Russia and China, perpetuating a war against the ghost of communism while their citizens suffer under unchecked capitalism.

While Meloni and Milei are not identical, their differences are superficial. Both leaders are committed to maintaining the neoliberal order while masquerading as champions of the people. Their friendship and mutual support are likely to continue, driven not by shared beliefs but by a common goal: preserving their power and the neoliberal status quo.