Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is heralded as the new leader for Europe in the post-Angela Merkel era. With Germany’s frozen policy and Franceâs Emmanuel Macron ahead of the presidential election, Draghi, credited with saving the euro when he headed the European Central Bank (ECB) with three words “whatever it takes”, looks like an unprecedented couple To get an idea of ââwhy Europe’s elites are so excited about the idea of ââDraghi taking on a bigger role in Europe, just look at the outcome of the first round of Italy’s mayoral elections earlier this month, right-wing politics embodied by Matteo Salvini, voters opted for mostly inconspicuous bureaucrats, a kind of army of mini draghis.
Italian politics remains volatile, as evidenced by the disputes over the use of âgreen passportsâ to prove vaccinations and major protests in Milan and the port city of Trieste. This is because Draghi, who was named Prime Minister this year after Italy’s elected politicians failed to cope with the pandemic, is driving the post-Covid narrative about Europe’s economic revival. Italy vaccinated 80% of its population over the age of 12 and infections have decreased significantly since the pandemic began when the country was one of the hardest hit countries outside of China.
Draghi has stayed on course and will not let the protests postpone him. His steadfastness supports the moderates of Italy. For a Europe hoping to dampen extremism, Italy could become an encouraging beacon. The country has an eerie history as an omen: fascism creates Nazism, Silvio Berlusconi plays Donald Trump up front. The rise of populism here was seen as a harbinger for Europe in the broader sense. Now its weariness is welcome news. And that would be thanks to the new mood that a bizarre Draghi brought to Italy.
Italy has received the largest payout of NextGenEU funding, more than 200 billion euros. The success or failure of the project depends on Draghi spending the handout well. So far the signs are encouraging. Much of the infusion is aimed at making the economy more digital and resilient. Around 40% for climate-related initiatives. Even the French newspaper Les Echos celebrated Italy’s apparent transformation from a sick man in Europe to a role model: “All roads now lead to Rome.”
Draghi’s international reputation and experience make him an obvious candidate to lead Europe. Europe has already given its famous âWhatever it takesâ speech in 2012. He’s a pragmatist and good at balancing competing views. Like someone who negotiated with him at the ECB, he is also adept at âseducingâ them, trying quietly to convince them.
But it would be wrong for Europeans to place their hopes on Draghi being interchangeable with Merkel or Macron. Most importantly, he’s likely a closer ally of the U.S. – with a history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the World Bank, and Goldman Sachs.
Brunello Rosa, who runs a consulting and research company with economist Nouriel Roubini, recently told me that Draghi believes in multilateralism, but the main shareholder is the US. After Draghi became Italy’s prime minister, he pushed back the Chinese appeasement that recently shaped European foreign policy and blocked the sale of an Italian semiconductor company to China earlier this year. Significantly, Draghi remained silent about the debacle between Aukus and France.
Within the EU, he made it clear that if Europe wants to be a major player in the global economy, it must be more ambitious when it comes to integration. As the ex-president of the ECB, he is well positioned to rant in Brussels about easing fiscal rules. A change would allow Europe to accelerate its transition from austerity to more growth-friendly public spending.
It is possible that Europe will embrace Draghi in all his fullness. However, there is still one question that puts all of this on shaky ground: legitimacy. Draghi is an unelected technocrat who runs Italy at the behest of its president and on the basis of bipartisan support from Italy’s restless politicians. Merkel was influential because her influence in Europe was based on her retention of power for almost 16 years. As talented as he may be, Draghi’s influence ultimately derives from Italian national support, which is fluid in the best of times.
Also remember that the hard core issues of Europe’s future – defense and strategic autonomy – are not Draghi’s natural domain. Italy moved closer to the US in the post-war period, and Draghi may not be enthusiastic about advocating separation.
Still, Draghi has what it takes to be a new leader in Europe. Europe should just know what it is getting.
Rachel Sanderson is a freelance correspondent for Bloomberg.
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