ITALIAN POLITICS has a saviour complex. In the 16th century, Machiavelli despaired that “Italy remains without life and awaits the man…who is to heal her wounds.” In the modern era, redemption has taken peculiar forms. It once bore the appearance of Silvio Berlusconi, a cruise-ship-singer-turned-media-mogul who promised to upend politics and instead ended up repeatedly in court. A few years later came Matteo Renzi, a young reformer who over-promised, under-delivered and then imploded. Now salvation has appeared in the shape of Mario Draghi, a celebrated former president of the European Central Bank, who became prime minister in February. One Italian politician compared him to Christ.
Where once this saviour complex was an Italian affliction, the rise of Mr Draghi has turned it into a European one. A decision by Mr Draghi’s government to block vaccine exports by AstraZeneca was applauded as a muscular approach to a company that had defied the EU. When Ursula von der Leyen, the first female president of the European Commission, was banished to a sofa during a meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Draghi labelled the Turkish president a “dictator”. Buyers of Italian bonds, a pernickety focus group, have sent yields on Italian debt tumbling. Diplomats rejoice at the arrival of someone in Rome with whom they can do business. Glowing portraits of Mr Draghi appear in the international press. A new saviour had arrived, this time for all of Europe.
Great expectations of Mr Draghi are understandable. They should, however, be tempered. At the ECB, he earned the nickname “Super Mario”. But running a central bank, even one as politically fraught as the ECB, is different from running a country. The ECB always had the powers required to fight the crisis; it just needed someone with the political nous to wield them. At the ECB, one can pull a lever and money comes out. In the Italian government, one can pull a lever and find it is connected to nothing at all.
Italy does have a louder voice on the European stage thanks to Mr Draghi. But this should not require a miracle. Italy is a founding member of the club, its third-most populous country and its third-biggest economy. Prior to Mr Draghi, it was not always treated as such. Power within the EU increasingly resides in the European Council, the regular summits of European leaders. In this format, Italy’s carousel of changing prime ministers becomes a weakness. Those riding it were often underqualified. Giuseppe Conte, Mr Draghi’s predecessor, was an unknown lawyer before rising to the highest sphere of European politics. Mr Berlusconi was a tax-dodging clown with a penchant for sex parties. Compared with this, statesmanship is easy.
If Mr Draghi enjoys a higher profile on the European stage than his predecessors, it is because his fellow leaders have shrunk. After 16 years as the centre of EU politics, Angela Merkel is becoming a peripheral character as her retirement in September nears. Where Emmanuel Macron once saw the continent as his stage, domestic concerns increasingly trump European ones ahead of French elections next year. The current heads of the main European institutions, meanwhile, were chosen for convenience rather than talent. It is not hard to rule a void.
The market, too, has developed a saviour complex about Mr Draghi. Bluntly, Mr Draghi’s government can write cheques because it is he who leads it. Earlier this month, his government announced plans to add €40bn (2.4% of GDP) in stimulus, and bond yields barely budged. In contrast, when in 2018 an Italian government led by populists and the hard right proposed a budget with a total deficit of 2.4% of GDP, the markets threw a tantrum. But this privilege will not last. Mr Draghi will not be around for ever. His role is likely to be a temporary one (an election is due in the…
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