I have started to write a new book – this time on democracy and politics in France (with Pierre-Charles Pradier), but with the usual impeccable timing I think I may have chosen the wrong subject at the wrong time. Against a backdrop where the Tory Party is about to choose Liz Truss as its leader, and Italy has proven too much for the admirable Mario Draghi, France is a bastion of political peace and stability!
At the time of writing, it looks like Mario Draghi’s time in Italian politics is over (he may yet become president) and given the way he led the country during the COVID crisis, oversaw a rebound in its economy and restored the authority of Italy as a foreign policy voice, this is a loss for Italy. Moreover, that someone of his credibility and achievement can be spat out by a political system is deeply disheartening.
From a political labour market point of view Draghi is the ‘opposite’ experiment to the likes of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and a growing list of other opportunists in the sense that he entered politics from a position of strength and accomplishment and was likely more motivated by public service than self-interest. He may have lacked the popular touch, but at a time when most people are put off public life by its viciousness, the potential exit of Draghi is a pity, and a costly mistake for Italy.
The government he led collapsed for several reasons. One is that the populist 5 Star party has found its support shrink given its role in government. The decision of Luigi di Maio to leave 5 Star and pursue a more serious political career shows that for some at least there is a viable transition from populism to power.
Similarly, to 5 Star, the two right wing parties in the Draghi government, the Northern League (Lega) and Forza Italia (recall Berlusconi) have lost their lustre with voters because of their participation in government and have been surpassed on the right by Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party. She is interesting, for mostly the wrong reasons.
To start with, there are at least two similarities with France. The first is that in terms of parties, Italy’s system is fragmented – comprising a centre (France’s centre is larger and more robust) surrounded by parties of the ‘far’ right and left, that style themselves as being against the ‘system’.
In recent years ‘anti-system’ parties in Italy have positioned themselves against Europe and the euro, though the new development is that whilst being ‘anti-Brussels’ Meloni’s rhetoric is more ‘anti-globalist’ (Draghi is seen as a high priest of this movement, whose capitol is Davos). Similarly French politics has switched from a left-right wing axis toward one where disenchanted locals pit themselves against the elite globalists (as they portray Macron).
Meloni is also interesting politically in that she cultivates relationships with far-right politicians in other countries – Le Pen in France (whose niece is also building an international network of neo-facists), Orban in Hungary and some Republicans in the US. Whilst this is not a novel development, there are few such networks, and in this case, it is a menacing one.
This made all the more worrying by the links that Italian political parties have to Russia, notably Meloni, Matteo Salvini of the Northern League and of course Berlusconi’s personal ties to Vladimir Putin. Given what is happening to Ukraine, these ties have, in the context of elections and a new government, the potential to undercut support for Ukraine from Italy, and to permit Moscow an avenue through which to destabilise Europe’s response.
There will now be an election on September 25, and polls suggest that the next government (a technocrat led caretaker government till next spring is also possible) will be formed of (far) right parties, possibly led by Meloni, orchestrated by Berlusconi. It is still possible that Italians revolt against the populist parties (one thousand mayors have signed a petition in support of Draghi)
Broadly speaking the policy agenda of the right lacks originality, and squanders whatever fiscal space Italy possesses. The ECB’s new ‘anti-fragmentation’ policy toolbox complicates things even further because the conditionality it demands is only found in economically upright, cooperative euro-zone countries. To that end, Italy may become a source of political tension with Brussels, and volatility in bond markets. The one important carrot Brussels has in the EU Next Generation Fund, where further disbursements are contingent on ‘good behavior’.
The greater challenge for Italy’s political class, having jettisoned Draghi, is to come up with either a leader or a set of policies that bring growth to Italy, and give it more of the prestige that Draghi brought. Like most populists, they will likely do the opposite.
Have a great week ahead,