Finding a way out of the pandemic, overcoming years of stagnation, and introducing a new priority in climate change: the new Italian government does not have an easy brief. Since entering office in February, Mario Draghi has reset the agenda and forged a consensus on recovery but the real politics still lies ahead. Luca Misculin unpicks the challenges that the Draghi government will face, from unanswered questions about Italy’s development model to navigating his awkward coalition.

Over the past two years, reporting on Italian politics has become near impossible. The twists and turns since the 2018 general election have made attempts to outline scenarios all too rare: they soon look foolish.

Just look back at the third government in three years of this parliament, which received the confidence of both chambers in mid-February. The most Eurosceptic parliament ever elected in Italian history – the League and the Five Star Movement shared 50 per cent of votes between them in 2018 – has by an overwhelming majority chosen to support a government led by the former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. The Five Star Movement, born at the height of Silvio Berlusconi’s career to voice dissatisfaction with his governments and with national elites, now sits alongside the former prime minister’s party Forza Italia as part of the governing majority. The two parties who aspire to lead the centre-left and centre-right coalitions at the next general election, the Democratic Party and the League, have also just committed to ruling together.

It’s not just people who report on Italian politics who are disoriented. Before he was forced to resign by the machinations of Matteo Renzi, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte was the most popular politician in Italy, according to opinion polls. He has swiftly been replaced in those polls by his successor, Mario Draghi, who now enjoys similar ratings.

There is the impression that amidst the turmoil of early 2020, a new phase has begun that nobody yet fully understands: the umpteenth reshuffling of the pack for a country that never recovered from the economic crisis of 2008 to 2011. For the time being, the arrival of Draghi – “the man of providence”, as he was described by influential political analyst Alessandro De Angelis – has wrong-footed the electorate, journalists and politicians alike.But few doubt that it will be painless, not least for the politicians who face difficult choices over the coming months.

The grandest coalition

Draghi’s new government brings together support from the Five Star, the centre-left, and the centre-right but, more than anything else, its strength depends on the League. The party most critical of Draghi in the past is now looking to carve out a new political space for itself as a national and moderate party, the natural partner of the European People’s Party after the decline of Forza Italia whose days are now numbered. This new look doesn’t suit Matteo Salvini, quite literally. He was used to holding rallies in town squares wearing a hoodie and baseball cap; today, he’s forced to wear a suit and tie as one of the leaders of the governing majority. But something had to happen after his party dropped 10 points in the polls since summer 2019 and his leadership was starting to show signs of strain. “We’re not pushing for anyone to join,” says an EPP source in the European Parliament. “And we won’t consider it until the League asks us.” In other words, we’ll meet you round the corner.

The political class that supports Draghi is the very same that produced years of squabbling and unproductive governments.

Meanwhile, in the Five Star Movement, cracks that had been temporarily hidden by its unanimous support for Conte are beginning to emerge. The divide between the moderate, “governist” wing and the radical wing has grown so large that there are now two distinct movements: the first is in government for now and well placed to pursue its agenda, while the second will see its appeal grow as election day draws closer. But a wholesale reinvention will be necessary. In Europe, the “pure” populist parties born in the wake of the financial crisis have either disappeared or left space for other experiments, and the Five Star Movement has to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. The recent choice of Conte as new party leader could still go in one direction or another, seen as he enjoys good relations with both wings of the party.

The Democratic Party is also on the lookout for a new identity. As part of the Conte government, the issues that it put on the agenda at the start of the term – citizenship for foreign minors born in Italy and proposed legislation for a minimum wage – were completely overshadowed by the Five Star Movement’s battle to reduce the number of parliamentarians, and then side-lined again by the coronavirus pandemic. The team around party leader Nicola Zingaretti has nevertheless invested heavily in a policy of “civilising the barbarians”: moving gradually closer to the Five Star Movement in an attempt to subsume it into the centre-left alliance. But many inside and outside the party believe the strategy is driven by cynical and superficial political calculation, and that to find its way again, the Democratic Party needs new priorities and fresh leadership (Zingaretti belongs to the last generation of leaders to begin their careers in the Italian Communist Party).

An unexpected entrance

While the direction parties take will only become clear over the coming months and years, Draghi’s appointment has nevertheless brought with it certain core values. The first concerns communication.

“We communicate what we do. We haven’t done anything yet so we’re not communicating anything,” Draghi is said to have to have told colleagues in the days immediately following his appointment, according to Corriere della Sera. In the world of Italian politics, where spin doctors and press officers are fully fledged participants in political debate and political columnists often fill the first ten pages of the country’s biggest newspapers, Draghi’s desire to bring more sobriety to proceedings seems brave. The new prime minister confirmed this approach by appointing as his spokesperson Paola Ansuini, the former director of communications for the Bank of Italy.

In his first speech as premier, given to the Senate on February 17 and lasting 52 minutes, Draghi spoke in concise sentences with few adjectives, adverbs, and subordinate clauses. It marks an abrupt change from his predecessor, a lawyer and university professor who spoke in the Baroque Italian typical of the 20th-century governing class trained in the rhetoric of Roman philosophers.

But in his speech to the Senate requesting its confidence, the most recurring theme was the environment, to the surprise of parliamentarians and commentators. Draghi pointed to climate change as the next great challenge that humanity will have to tackle after the pandemic: “When we recover from the pandemic, and we will recover, what world will we find?”, Draghi wondered, in one of the most heart-felt passages of the speech. “Some think that the tragedy we’ve experienced for over 12 months is like a long power cut. Sooner or later the lights come back on, and everything carries on as before. Science, and simply common sense, suggest that this may not be the case. Global warming has direct effects on our lives and on our health, from pollution to groundwater vulnerability to rising sea levels that could make large swathes of coastal cities uninhabitable.”

And so the environment made a loud entrance into the Senate chamber, where before it was only ever referred to in passing, an obligatory mention of little import. Before Draghi, no prime minister had ever spoken in such concrete terms about the issue and with such knowledge – the line about the sea eating the land was bound to resonate in Venice.

Moreover, for years Italy has needed a new strategy for transitioning towards a more sustainable economy. All Italy’s major unresolved corporate crises are linked to obsolete development models – such as the ILVA steelworks in Puglia and the coalmines in Sardinia – while Italian cities rank among the highest in Europe on air pollution according to a recent study published by The Lancet Planetary Health. Changing Italian habits in such a short space of time will, however, be challenging. According to a recent survey by the European Parliament, Italians are among the western Europeans least aware about climate change: in 2019, just one in four said that fighting climate change should be one of the new parliament’s top priorities.

In his speech, Draghi spoke at length about youth employment and school, calling for the reform of vocational education periodically advocated by experts, but never implemented by politicians. He also emphasised that there is still a long way to go in reaching gender equality across Italian society, but neglected to justify his selection of just eight female ministers out of the 24 members of his cabinet.

Another cornerstone of the Draghi government – and we can be sure of his sincerity on this – will be staunch commitment to European integration. Draghi made this known both in his speech and his first conversations with partners and ministers: the new government looks favourably upon the gradual transfer of sovereignty to European institutions.

Draghi may have said this in public to protect himself against the League and its Eurosceptic impulses, as if saying: you knew what you were getting into when you decided to support my government. But, at the same time, it may have been a move designed to increase his political capital in the European Council, and exploit the power vacuum that will be created over the next few months as Angela Merkel steps down and Emmanuel Macron is forced to fight a long and potentially damaging re-election campaign. The most cautious observers note that in coming months the European Union will not have to make any tricky economic decisions – the multi-annual budget and Next Generation EU have already been approved – but will instead have to decide what its foreign policy will look like, and what exactly strategic autonomy means. But these are areas in which Draghi does not have the same expertise as he does when it comes to major economic issues.

Hard road ahead

Of course, to succeed, Draghi will have to do more than move up the hierarchy at the European Council, set a new political agenda, and communicate differently from his predecessors. To implement his ambitious programme of economic, social, judicial and environmental reforms, and not squander the 209 billion euros from Next Generation EU, Draghi will need the support of both local and national political classes, and the civil service.

It’s the very nature of these classes, which in Italy have for decades seemed impervious to the innovations shaking up the world, that worry observers outside the government. The political class that supports Draghi is the very same that produced years of squabbling and unproductive governments, and whose decision-making is based on calculations about short-term approval above all else. Italy’s public servants are among the oldest and most set in their ways in Europe, and the European Commission has been moaning about them for years informally. Indeed, a source in the Commission confirms that it would look favourably upon a programme of renewal and targeted recruitment financed with Next Generation EU funds.

Nevertheless, none of these changes can be achieved in the brief window open to Draghi. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the months ahead will be turbulent for the new prime minister.

At the end of March, the moratorium on redundancies, imposed by the previous government to prevent social unrest, will end. In June or September – the exact date remains to be seen – mayoral elections will be held in Italy’s biggest cities, including Rome, Milan and Naples. The parties governing together at national level will be forced to attack one another in electoral campaigns. In a year’s time, the parties will have to elect a new President of the Republic to succeed Sergio Mattarella. And then just over two years from now, in the spring of 2023, this parliament will end.

To use a footballing metaphor often quoted in Italy, a team of amateurs can’t win the league, even with Lionel Messi upfront (much less so if the players are arguing among themselves). Whether or not Draghi can raise the quality of his team overall will determine if victory is possible.

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