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Jun 30, 2021

Super Mario

With the former ECB President Mario Draghi at the helm, Italy is finally making a comeback as a major European player.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italien PM Mario Draghi
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Since Mario Draghi took the reins of the Italian government last February, following the political crisis triggered by the former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and the subsequent collapse of the second government led by Giuseppe Conte, Italy appears to be moving once again to the center stage, especially when it comes to its role in Europe. This impression might have been enhanced by the victory of an Italian rock band at the Eurovision Song Contest in May or by the strong performance—so far—of the Italian soccer team at the European Championship. But it is first and foremost thanks to the new government’s leader, who combines very deep technical expertise with shrewd political acumen, accumulated in various high-level positions in the Italian public administration and international institutions, and who enjoys a level of credibility and trust among fellow European leaders rarely granted to Italian prime ministers in the recent past.

The expectations are high both in Italy and in Europe for the man who “saved the euro in the middle of a crisis with one phrase,” as the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it at the latest G7 summit, or “Super Mario,” as the press started to call him during his tenure as president of the European Central Bank. And indeed, his achievements in the first 100 days of government are promising: Italy was by mid-June in the top three countries in the European Union, together with Germany and France, in terms of number of people fully vaccinated, has submitted its National Recovery and Resilience Plan to the European Commission with a view to receiving about €209 billion in grants and loans, and is planning an impressive series of long-awaited reforms, from public procurement and concessions to competition and justice.

What are the main ingredients of Mario Draghi’s recipe for Italy’s recovery and foreign policy, at the European and international level?

Achieving Mission Impossible

Draghi’s government is based on a broad coalition formed by all the main political parties, with the exception of Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy. During his first months in office, Draghi has proved to be able to manage such a diversified political composition, which holds together Enrico Letta’s center-left Democratic Party with Matteo Salvini’s extreme-right Lega, Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia with the populist Five Star Movement, presently engaged in a power struggle between former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the movement's founder, Beppe Grillo, plus a number of smaller parties, including Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva and others. It might seem a mission impossible, but not for Super Mario, who managed to gain support by forming a government that is composed of both technical and political members—but assigning the responsibility for the key economic, infrastructure, and digital matters to trustworthy technocrats.

He has also managed with a steady hand any demands coming from political leaders that could weaken the coalition, from Letta’s proposal to introduce a tax for millionaires to be devolved to young people to Salvini’s campaign for an early lifting of coronavirus restrictions. Most of these have been swiftly brushed aside by the prime minister, conscious that the size of his parliamentary majority means that he can play one leader off against the other. For this reason, many observers have started to talk about a “Pax Draghiana,” which would most probably survive the election of the next president of the Italian Republic in 2022 and see out the current legislative period until elections in 2023.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

Some observers may be inclined to compare the current situation in Italian politics with previous occasions, when a “government of experts” was formed as a solution to an acute political crisis. The last one was in 2011, which was led by Mario Monti and succeeded Silvio Berlusconi’s government. And yet, this is a completely new situation in many respects. In particular, Draghi’s government is not associated with a “blood and tears” economic policy and this allows him to enjoy also a good level of public support. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently handed over the scorecard on Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan in the picturesque setting of Cinecittà, which will make Italy the first recipient of loans and grants agreed within the framework of the Next Generation EU package, with €25 billion arriving in Rome already in July. As Draghi has clearly stated, this is a once-in-lifetime opportunity for Italy to recover through the application of huge resources but also dramatic reforms, which should be implemented with a tight program over the summer.

This renewed steadiness at home, together with Draghi’s strong personal relationships with his fellow European leaders, and particularly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are excellent credentials for a more assertive presence of Italy in the European arena. After the resetting of European alliances towards the Visegrád countries and the criticism of Europe promoted by the Conte I government formed by the Lega and the Five Star Movement in 2018 and the difficult rehabilitation pursued in the midst of the pandemic pursued by the Conte II government, it is time for Italy’s comeback as a relevant player at the European level.

This starts first and foremost with a consolidation of traditional alliances on key priorities of the European agenda: health, migration, Libya, climate change. And in fact, these topics were prominent during Draghi’s first two official visits to Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Chancellor Merkel, which had also the clear intention of reinforcing the Mediterranean and the German-Italian axes in Europe. The Italian President Sergio Mattarella is covering the French flank, with a view to normalizing and relaunching the relationship after the disagreements over industrial interests and Libya that characterized the most recent years.

The Two Pillars

More and more, Italy seems to be destined to play an active role in Europe, at a level equal to its historical, demographic, and economic weight, and to assert itself both as a third party to the Franco-German engine and a pivot for Europe’s Mediterranean policy. This outcome is also favored in the current European context, without the United Kingdom and with the uncertainty linked to the forthcoming elections in Germany and France as a destabilizing factor for those two countries.

Draghi’s Italy is also resolute in reaffirming its traditional international position alongside its transatlantic ally, the United States, regarded as both a glue to ensure unity among the big European states while preventing an excessive Franco-German centrality, and as an external supporter of Italy's role in Europe and in the Mediterranean. In Draghi’s view, Europeanism and Atlanticism are closely entwined: not only are they the “two pillars of Italian foreign policy” as he declared at the latest G7 summit after his bilateral meeting with US President Joe Biden, but Atlanticism is also a necessary bond for Europeanism. Draghi’s appeal for a stronger transatlantic link is also a message to those political forces in his coalition that had shown a tendency in the recent past to privilege ties with systemic rivals such as China and strategic competitors such as Russia, namely the Five Star Movement and the Lega.

Last but not least, Draghi is preparing to display his powers of bringing people together as president of the forthcoming G20 summit in October 2021, where he will try to strike a deal on sensitive and crucial issues such as climate change, global finance, and vaccines. In some ways he could thus be seen as taking on Merkel’s role as the finder of compromises and forger of alliances, just as she is leaving the global political stage.

Draghi’s honeymoon is a temporary passage in Italian political life, born from a political crisis caused by the public health emergency. It is destined to give way to the normal dynamics of political confrontation and different approaches in the management of public affairs. Nevertheless, it appears that the current Italian prime minister is both willing and able to make the most of it, internally and externally, to trigger reforms and ensure a sustainable recovery. A wealthy and reliable Italy, solidly European and transatlantic with a Mediterranean projection, cannot but benefit its citizens, and be an asset to the European Union and its international partners. 

Nicoletta Pirozzi leads the EU politics and institutions program at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome.