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.”
Variously attributed to Winston Churchill or Benito Mussolini, the adage, governing Italians is not impossible but pointless, did for once not hold true.
Mario Draghi is set to conclude his term as Italy’s prime minister ahead of time, and the country is headed for early election — a seemingly familiar tale.
Yet, even if only for 18 months, the leader’s government has pulled off a remarkable feat: Italy managed the coexistence of populism and technocracy, the two dominating forces of democratic governance in the past decades — and it’s all thanks to Draghi.
Interestingly, the context of his government wasn’t entirely unique. Over the past 30 years, Italy has routinely turned to its stellar civil servants to take the reins of government when politics gets 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 in Italian politics. In the jargon of political scientists, it is the replacement “input legitimacy,” which in democracies is channeled by voters and exercised by parliament, with “output legitimacy,” provided by results and expertise of senior technocrats.
This legitimacy gap has been at the heart of the so-called “democratic deficit” of European institutions for decades. In Italy’s case, however, it was the reverse — a parliament dominated by populist parties on both the right and the left, in need of experts.
By February 2021, the then sitting government had addressed the COVID-19 pandemic with mixed results, but it was failing to grab the most consequential opportunity of a generation — the Recovery and Resilience Facility. As the country most severely hit by the pandemic, in July 2020, the European Union had assigned Italy a whopping €206 billion in grants and loans. Any such massive investment requires a plan, and Italy was struggling to produce one.
Thus, upon taking office, Draghi made this his top priority. He appointed two independent figures to lead the ministries of environmental and digital affairs — the two pillars of Italy’s plan — and the government laid its foundation up to 2026. That June, the European Commission approved the plan. And by autumn, under Draghi, Italy had one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates and the “green pass” was being widely used in work and public places.
But the chaotic election for president of the republic in January 2022 was a harbinger of the volatility between Draghi and his coalition partners. Draghi was said to aspire to the job, but it became immediately apparent that without him as prime minister, early elections would be inevitable. So, he stayed on, his authority undimmed, but the signs were ominous.
When Russia then invaded Ukraine the following month, Italy was at a crossroads. The country has historically strong ties to Russia — politically, economically and culturally. Some parties, such as the League, enjoy disturbingly warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, and Italy got about 40 percent of its gas supply from Russia. Public opinion was also confused, partly due to divisive and sloppy media coverage.
Despite all this, Draghi, almost single-handedly, pushed for a proactive and principled stance on Ukraine. He masterminded the freezing of Russian foreign currency reserves — arguably the most significant restrictive measure imposed by the West — and was among the earliest supporters of Ukraine’s candidate status in the EU, which was granted in June.
Draghi also traveled relentlessly in North and sub-Saharan Africa to secure alternatives to Russian gas, which is now projected to constitute less than 20 percent of Italy’s total imports. He spoke clearly about the necessity of sacrifices, famously quipping, “Do you want peace or air conditioning?”
In wartime, narratives matter, and Draghi provided one.
Yet, he was still voted down in an inexplicable palace coup, the kind of which Italy has seen so many times. And though it’s true that Italy would have had a rough ride until the natural expiry of the legislature next year, the Draghi government could have used the additional time to help the country cope with a wartime winter with galloping inflation.
Nonetheless, it’s fair to acknowledge the extraordinary record of a technocratic government that pursued what, by all accounts, was a boldly political agenda.
Of course, much of this record relied on the prime minister’s own authority, at a pivotal moment of pandemic recovery and existential reckoning for Europe’s peace. Trying to capitalize on its popularity, several parties are currently campaigning on a supposed “Draghi agenda.” Yet, the only real Draghi agenda is that a grand bargain between technocracy and populism is possible and, in times of crisis, necessary.
In the 1970s, Italy famously attempted a Compromesso storico between the Christian Democrats and Communists. It’s not far-fetched to consider Draghi’s experiment a modern-day rendition of that historic compromise — one that required populists to resist their disruptive impulses and technocrats to get used to the thrust-and-parry of democratic politics.
It was good while it lasted, and for once, perhaps, Italian politics blazed a trail.