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Italy’s technocratic anomaly

Tommaso Grossi is a policy analyst in the Social Europe and Well-Being Programme at the European Policy Centre. Francesco De Angelis is a junior policy analyst for the center’s Europe’s Political Economy Programme.  

Historian Donald Sassoon had dubbed the alleged lack of political maturity lamented by many Italian pundits and intellectuals as the “Italian anomaly.”  

The many problems facing the country are often identified as part of this Italian exceptionalism, which seemingly prevents the country from functioning like other Western democracies — and it also explains its historical yearning for a strong leader. 

Italy’s institutional weaknesses, compounded by an electoral setup preventing solid parliamentary majorities, has led to another difference from its neighbors too: technocratic high-profile prime ministers being summoned by squabbling party leaders in tumultuous times. 

However, turning to technocrats in this way undermines the civil pact that should bind rulers and the ruled together in democracies, while running the risk of stoking populist resentment. And it’s high time Italian politics finally moved forward. 

When Italy was being rocked by a currency crisis, corruption and Mafia terrorism in 1993, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a former central banker, was made prime minister. Lamberto Dini took over Silvio Berlusconi’s first government in 1995; Mario Monti was summoned to introduce austerity measures to “heal” Italy’s public finances in 2011; and it was last year that President Sergio Mattarella turned to Mario Draghi, nominating one of the most credible men outside partisan politics, to steer Italy through a storm.  

Mattarella’s strategy made sense. Draghi’s appointment was a clear message to political parties and factions that the stakes were too high for the business-as-usual of partisan politics: Italy needed to speed up the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and to start some key reforms to modernize the country and access European Union recovery funds. The stakes were too high for Europe as well, as Italy’s success or failure in implementing recovery reforms could determine the future of bloc-wide financial solidarity. 

But, despite some accomplishments, many reforms introduced by Draghi’s coalition government were eventually watered down to accommodate political factions, and although a façade of national unity remained until this month, many disagreements persisted.

In his speech to the Italian Senate last week, following the crisis triggered by the 5Star Movement, Draghi accused some members in his cross-party coalition of attempting to subvert him, demanding all political factions recommit to working together. But with far-right and right-wing parties seeing their collective position in the polls approaching 50 percent, it was just a matter of time before they — or the 5star Movement, whose intentions haven’t been clear — would finally pull the plug. The opportunity was simply too good to miss.

When Draghi was appointed, historian Adam Tooze wrote that democracies may find it hard to live without technocrats, but they won’t save us — and certainly, they won’t save Italy.

Draghi leaves behind much unfinished business, which his coalition government could not, or did not, want to deliver on. Reforming the tax system, competition law, and the judiciary, as well as the introduction of a minimum wage and protection for low-income households are all issues that the next — likely far-right — government will have to deal with.   

Of course, Draghi’s stature surely enabled Italy to gain political clout and credibility both in Brussels and on the international stage, but more could have been done domestically to tackle key social challenges. And, of course, elections would have still occurred next year, but right now, the far-right is ready to capitalize.

There’s a lesson to be drawn here in the longer term, however, which is that Italy needs to be less anomalous. It needs to develop a new, wiser political culture that seeks to stabilize its politics — and not make excuses for missed opportunities and for failing to deliver on promises.

* The content and views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect those of the European Policy Centre.

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