Fabrizio Tassinari is Executive Director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute and author of “The Pursuit of Governance: Nordic Dispatches on a New Middle Way”.
Attributed variously to Winston Churchill or Benito Mussolini, the adage, governing the Italians is not impossible but useless, has for once not held up.
Mario Draghi is about to end his term as Italy’s prime minister ahead of schedule, and the country is heading for a snap election – a seemingly familiar story.
Yet, even if only for 18 months, the leader’s government has achieved a remarkable feat: Italy has managed the coexistence of populism and technocracy, the two dominant forces of democratic governance in recent decades. – and all thanks to Draghi.
Interestingly, the background of his government was not entirely unique. Over the past 30 years, Italy has regularly looked to its brilliant civil servants to take the reins of government when politics are in trouble. Draghi was in the same mold as Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who took office in 1993, and economist and academic Mario Monti, who did the same in 2012.
This is the symptom of a chronic dysfunction of Italian politics. In the jargon of political scientists, it is the replacement of “entry legitimacy”, which in democracies is channeled through voters and exercised by parliament, by “exit legitimacy”, provided by results and expertise of high-level technocrats.
This legitimacy deficit has been at the heart of the so-called “democratic deficit” of European institutions for decades. In Italy’s case, however, it was the other way around – a parliament dominated by right and left populist parties, which needed experts.
In February 2021, the then government had dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic with mixed results, but failed to seize the most important opportunity of a generation: the Recovery and Resilience Facility. . As the country hardest hit by the pandemic, by July 2020 the European Union had allocated Italy 206 billion euros in grants and loans. Any such massive investment requires a plan, and Italy was struggling to produce one.
Thus, as soon as he took office, Draghi made it his top priority. He appointed two independent figures to lead the environment and digital ministries – the two pillars of the Italian plan – and the government laid the foundations until 2026. In June, the European Commission approved the plan. And in the fall, under Draghi, Italy had one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates and the “green pass” was widely used in workplaces and public places.
But the chaotic election of the president of the republic in January 2022 was a harbinger of volatility between Draghi and his coalition partners. It was said that Draghi aspired to the post, but it immediately became apparent that without him as prime minister, a snap election would be inevitable. So he stayed, his authority intact, but the signs were ominous.
When Russia invaded Ukraine the following month, Italy was at a crossroads. The country has historically strong ties with Russia – politically, economically and culturally. Certain parties, such as the League, maintain particularly warm relations with the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Italy sources around 40% of its gas from Russia. Public opinion was also confused, in part due to controversial and sloppy media coverage.
Despite all of this, Draghi almost single-handedly pushed for a proactive and principled stance on Ukraine. He orchestrated the freezing of Russian currency reserves – arguably the most significant restrictive measure imposed by the West – and was an early supporter of Ukraine’s EU candidate status, which was granted in June.
Draghi has also traveled tirelessly in North and sub-Saharan Africa to find alternatives to Russian gas, which is now expected to account for less than 20% of Italy’s total imports. He spoke clearly about the need for sacrifices, joking, “Do you want peace or air conditioning?
In wartime, stories matter, and Draghi provided one.
Yet he was thrown out anyway in an inexplicable palace coup, the kind Italy has witnessed so often. And while it’s true that Italy would have had a tough run until the legislature naturally expires next year, the Draghi government could have used the extra time to help the country weather a winter of war with galloping inflation.
Nonetheless, it is fair to acknowledge the extraordinary record of a technocratic government that pursued what by all accounts was a bold political agenda.
Of course, much of that toll rested on the Prime Minister’s own authority, at a pivotal moment in pandemic recovery and the existential reckoning for peace in Europe. Trying to capitalize on his popularity, several parties are currently campaigning on a so-called “draghi agenda”. Yet Draghi’s only real agenda is that a grand compromise between technocracy and populism is possible and, in times of crisis, necessary.
In the 1970s, Italy attempted a famous Historic Compromise between Christian Democrats and Communists. It is no exaggeration to regard Draghi’s experience as a modern interpretation of this historic compromise – a compromise that has forced populists to resist their disruptive impulses and technocrats to grow accustomed to the push and parade of democratic politics.
It was good while it lasted, and for once, perhaps, Italian politics led the way.