December 8th 2021
Italians aren’t used to seeing their prime ministers stick around for long, but many are hoping Mario Draghi proves to be the exception. That’s because the former European Central Bank chief has brought a steady hand to national politics in Rome, keeping the country on an even keel as it seeks to exit the pandemic while trimming its sails with a series of economic reforms.
Not aligned with any party, Draghi is governing Italy as a technocrat, lending his significant gravitas to a country that has long punched below its weight in the European arena. Ever since Brexit, the European Union has lacked a third power player to counter Paris and Berlin. With Draghi, Italy has a leader that can drag the country into the heart of European affairs — just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure opens up a space for him as the EU’s de facto leader, on economic affairs at the very least. That will be especially true if Draghi can cement a working alliance with French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz, creating a centrist trio that could dramatically change the way Europe ticks.
Draghi is no stranger to adversity. He lost both parents in his teenage years, forcing him to adjust to adulthood early. After that came his studies at MIT as an economist and a stint at the World Bank. He subsequently worked at the Italian treasury, Goldman Sachs, the Bank of Italy and the ECB. An unshowy, academically minded 74-year-old, he is best known for stabilizing financial markets as ECB president in 2012 by declaring that he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. True to his word, it proved enough. The euro held during the financial crisis and the debt crisis.
Now Draghi is under pressure to deliver again. Italy is the recipient of the largest tranche of the European Commission’s NextGenerationEU recovery fund. It’s on track to receive €191.5 billion in grants and loans in exchange for carrying out a series of reforms that Brussels hopes will put the country on a path to growth. If Draghi can deliver where so many prime ministers have floundered, he could be remembered as the one who finally found the recipe to pull the country out of more than 20 years of economic doldrums. Just as importantly, he will have proved the effectiveness of the EU’s decision to issue joint debt to help countries recover from the coronavirus crisis.
His success is by no means guaranteed. Draghi’s role as a political outsider is also a disadvantage. Without a political group of his own, he stands outside the big European political families and is shut out of their pre-summit catch ups. “He’s a fantastic general, but a general without troops,” said an EU diplomat in Brussels. His first months in office as prime minister also exposed a naivety when it comes to managing geopolitics. It took him months to mend a spat with Turkey’s recalcitrant President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a central figure in the conflict in Libya, after calling him a “dictator.” He’s also put himself in the middle of great power politics after calling a G20 summit, only to have China and Russia not send their leaders.
Then there’s the fact that he’s working against the clock. Italy must hold a general election by 2023, a contest in which Draghi would almost certainly not be running — and as a man without a party, he’d struggle to win anyway. Meanwhile, the Italian far right is surging in the polls, threatening to roll back his agenda. More immediately, his name has been floated as a possible candidate for president, a largely ceremonial role that primarily serves as a guarantor of political stability and constitutional order. That position, which has a seven-year term, must be filled in January. Meaning, the Italian parliament could be forced to choose between Draghi leading the country for the next few months or guiding it from above for the remainder of the decade.