When contemplating wily high-altitude manoeuvres in Italian politics, it is customary to pull a copy of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard from the shelves. In his great novel of the 19th-century Risorgimento, one of Lampedusa’s characters observes that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same”. At one level, the prospective appointment of the former head of the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi, as Italy’s new prime minister, comes straight from the pragmatic Lampedusa playbook.
Mr Draghi has been personally recruited as a safe pair of hands by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, following the shambolic and untimely collapse of the country’s centre-left coalition government. A destabilising election in the middle of the Covid pandemic would have spooked both the markets and European allies, who recently committed to offering Italy around £185bn from the flagship EU recovery fund. The likelihood that such a poll would be won by parties on the Eurosceptic hard right made the prospect of a snap election doubly unattractive. So Mr Mattarella has bypassed the voters and asked one of Europe’s most respected economists and bankers to take the reins.
The stakes could scarcely be higher. Mr Draghi’s credentials are impressive, but Italy’s last experiment in technocratic government is not fondly remembered. During the eurozone debt crisis, austerity measures dictated by Brussels were imposed by another unelected economist, Mario Monti. Popular resentment fuelled the rise of Beppe Grillo’s anti-elites Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s Eurosceptic League party. In 2018, the two parties formed Europe’s first populist government, which fell apart after a power play from Mr Salvini. Its successor, built on a coalition between Five Star and the centre-left Democratic party, was a fragile marriage of convenience, cobbled together to avoid going to the polls.
None of this suggests a democracy in rude health. Five Star MPs are split over whether to back Mr Draghi. One of the movement’s leading figures this week described him as an “apostle of the elite”. Mr Salvini is keeping his options open for the time being. But after crucial lost weeks of turmoil, irresponsible infighting and political stasis, it seems likely that enough support will be found to form a Draghi administration.
That would be a good thing for Italy in the short term. Mr Draghi made his reputation as head of the ECB by promising to do “whatever it takes” to protect the euro from financial speculation in 2012. A similar level of commitment and nerve will be required to revive the Italian economy after the pandemic. In common with EU neighbours, Italy’s vaccination programme is stalling. Unemployment is set to spiral in the spring, while GDP fell by almost 9% in 2020. The country’s huge national debt remains by far the biggest in the EU. To take arms against this sea of troubles, Mr Draghi’s experience leaves him well placed to convince the markets that mounting levels of debt are sustainable, and to reassure Brussels that Italy will make the best possible use of cash from its recovery fund.
Unlike Mr Monti 10 years ago, prime minister Draghi would have money to burn. His track record suggests he would use it wisely. But assuming sufficient parliamentary support is forthcoming, his reign should be as brief as is feasible. Shuttling back and forth between populist demagogues and dry technocrats is in danger of becoming the default pattern of Italian politics. To resort to two unelected leaders in the space of a decade is not a good look for any self-respecting democracy, however grave the crisis.