What is the legacy of outgoing Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi?

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By Alice Tidey
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi delivers his speech, May 3, 2022 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi delivers his speech, May 3, 2022 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

Italians are fairly satisfied with the way Mario Draghi, the country's outgoing technocratic prime minister, navigated the COVID-19 crisis, the war in Ukraine and the consequences both have had on the economy, but as he prepares to leave the Chigi Palace, his legacy appears quite fragile.

According to a poll by the Centro Italiano Studi Elettorali released earlier this month, 62.4% of the country's electorate view Draghi's actions over the past 17 months positively.

Yet pollsters also predict that the next government will be made up of a right-wing coalition led by the far-right, neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party that will also include the right-wing populist Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi's Go Italy after Italians head to the polls on Sunday.

On many issues, these parties stand on opposite sides of the spectrum from Draghi.

The 75-year-old former head of the European Central Bank is unashamedly pro-EU, has called for tough sanctions on Russia and for strong financial and military support to Ukraine. He's also known as "Super Mario" for his leadership at the central bank during the euro crisis.

So after just a year and a half in office, what is Draghi's legacy in Italy likely to be?

Draghi's COVID-19 recovery package

Draghi was tasked with forming a government in February 2021 following the collapse of a coalition led by the populist Five Star Movement (MS5) that also included the right-wing Northern League party.

At the time, his main task was to steer the country through the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the vaccination campaign and the country's economic rebuilding.

Italy, like France and Spain, was plunged into recession in 2020 as economic activities all but ground to a halt due to lockdowns and border closures.

After establishing a so-called "big-tent coalition" that gathered together leftist, centrist and right-wing parties, he quickly set to work on building a plan the EU Commission would approve on how the country would spend the €190 billion it would receive from the bloc's €809 billion resilience and recovery fund.

The plan he put forward, which includes tough reforms in a reform-reticent country, is perhaps his best chance at a lasting legacy.

These reforms include modernising the country's public administration and justice system as well as liberalising competition rules and updating fiscal policies. The first two have been passed but now need to be implemented but the other measures have few fans.

"In practice, it's always possible for the next government to refuse to make the reforms," Leila Talani, Director of the Centre for Italian Politics at Kings' College London told Euronews.

But there would be a big catch. The disbursement of these EU funds is tied to the roll-out of these reforms with a tight timetable in place.

"The Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, has already said that there cannot be big changes (to the resilience and recovery plan) — only cosmetic changes — and that means that if the reforms are not implemented, they will not get the money," she explained.

Draghi's foreign policy chops

But COVID is not the only crisis "Super Mario" has had to steer his country through.

Twelve months into his tenure, Russia launched a full-scale military attack on its neighbour, unleashing dramatic consequences for Ukraine but for Europeans too as it sent energy prices soaring, and pushed inflation to record levels.

"Ukraine is probably the dossier in which he made the single biggest difference," Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER), told Euronews.

Italy has deep economic ties with Russia which had until now usually translated into a more conciliatory stance towards Russia on foreign policy matters than other Western EU member states.

Yet, Draghi was instrumental in getting France and Germany, which were much more sceptical on the issue, to back granting EU candidate status for Ukraine. He was also at the forefront of the effort to boost support for the war-torn country and to impose sanctions on Russia.

"He was significantly ahead of Italian public opinion in saying so and definitely in terms of his support for Ukraine," Scazzieri said, in particular when it comes to arms deliveries to Ukraine.

His clout at the European and international level, which allowed him to table ideas including a cap on Russian gas prices, something that the EU appears to be slowly moving towards despite first ruling it out as too difficult, is meanwhile attributed to "his gravitas and the fact that he had already been well known, and was very respected."

This — Italy punching above its weight in the EU — is however likely to end with him as Draghi "was very constructive. He was able to play the game."

A more eurosceptic government, such as one helmed by Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni could be more confrontational with the EU and would make it "harder for her to be included in the at the heart of the more important debates before the choices are made," he said.

What that means for EU sanctions against Russia, which have to be unanimously approved by the 27 member states, is unclear.

Italy, Talani said, has a close relationship with the US and NATO so even a more pro-Russia right-wing coalition is likely "to vote for the sanctions because we really do not want to be marginalised so much."

"But still, it could be a matter for discussion, a debate, and we will weaken our position in Europe by doing something like debating or discussing whether or not there should be sanctions," she added.

Draghi 'did all he could'

Draghi is unlikely to leave much of a mark on domestic politics despite managing to wrangle all the warring political parties in a grand coalition. His departure is therefore expected to spell the end of Italy's short-lived political stability and a return to the status quo.

When asked why Italian voters approve of Draghi yet are likely to elect a right-wing coalition, Scazzieri said that "at some stage, you need to return to a prime minister that's elected and to a more normal political life."

"There's also the perception that this grand coalition is somewhat unnatural because it was so much riven by infighting that there's the feeling it's better to have a clean either left-wing or right-wing coalition," he added.

Italy has had 11 prime ministers since the turn of the century as coalitions are made and implode. The country's next government may not be able to fare much better.

"There is the possibility that internal contradictions in the centre right will explode and even if they don't explode, they have a lot of internal contradictions. Believe me, they are not really as united as they look out from outside," Talani said.

Still, Draghi achieved essentially everything he wanted to, according to Scazzieri.

"There's this idea that somehow an individual can come and fix all of a country's issues. And there was a lot of that rhetoric with him just because of how competent he was. And I think he was perhaps more realistic in what he thought he could achieve and wanted to try to tie future governments to this reform path.

"He, realistically, did all he could and now it's down to others to try to collect the baton," he said.