Boris Johnson isn’t the only Prime Minister in Europe to announce stepping down this torrid summer: Italy’s Mario Draghi also handed in his notice last week. The departure of the former, while understandable and almost inevitable, is a cause of real concern; the departure of the latter is a cause for minor celebration. The joy at Draghi’s departure is most keenly felt by those on the right and those who champion democracy over the imposed technocracies of the anti-democratic EU. While it is indeed ‘a good thing’ that the dreadful Draghi is going, one should not raise one’s hopes too high that this is another manifestation of the onwards and upwards momentum of European populism.
There could hardly be a greater contrast between the ebullient, larger-than-life Johnson and the dry-as-dust Draghi – a bloodless bureaucrat and tedious technocrat. But what connects them both, as with most politicians, is overweening ambition. Not content with being Italy’s prime minister, Draghi now desires to be its president, living in the opulent Quirinale palace that goes with the job. That requires being elected by parliamentarians. He is not very conversant with elections and democracy, having yet to be democratically elected to any of his previous leading posts – Governor of the Bank of Italy, Chair of the International Stability Board and, in his most Sauron-like role, President of the European Central Bank – before being invited to become PM of Italy in February 2021. Oh, and before all that, just to complete the unbreakable corporate-technocratic oligarchy of Europe’s political leaders, he did rather well for himself at Goldman Sachs. (As did Mario Monti, Italian PM 2011-13.)
The resignation, following a vote of no confidence in Draghi’s coalition government and his increasingly autocratic behaviour, prompts a general election. However, that will not be held until late September or early October, during which time Draghi will remain as caretaker PM, rather like our own Boris. The election won’t be held earlier because Italian politicians, not known for their lack of venal cupidity, would, by official rules, stand to lose out on €50,000 in pension contributions if parliament is dissolved before then.
Similarly to Johnson, Draghi was also hailed as the great hope for his nation, ready to lead it out of its many crises. Business, the EU, the media and the whole establishment were enamoured with Draghi, calling him ‘Super Mario’, investing him with obviously over-optimistic powers to save Italy from its problems, massively intensified by the damage done to Italy in the international financial crisis and collapse of 2008. In fact, what really scuppered Italy was not solely that exigency, but the ones imposed on the country by the EU: crushing consequent austerity and the permanent imprisonment of the Euro. Italy still has not recovered, encumbered by massive debt and with one-third of under-thirties neither in work nor learning. Desperate to break out of the cycle of misfortune, many people thought Draghi fitted in to the recent Italian tradition of state saviours, as also seen in the likes of Silvio Berlusconi (the near-nonagenarian naughty boy still involved in high-level politics) and the smoothie Matteo Renzi. But just like them, Draghi has also failed.
On the surface, a general election looks like a golden opportunity for Italy to reassert its tainted democratic credentials by kicking out the civil servant/banker/technocrat Prime Minister’s government. Some have hailed a bright new dawn in Italian politics, while liberals are alarmed at the prospect of the robustly right-wing Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) soaring in popularity. It is all froth. Just as Italy has seen populist surges from the right before, the end result tends to lead eventually to a semi- or undemocratic government. Technocratic rule is now the norm in Italy. The Dini government of 1994-5 established this precedent, being comprised entirely of ‘experts’ – unelected technocrats one and all. It set a new and troubling paradigm. Too often the Italian compromise of having discontents in the tent peeing out rather than outside peeing in prevails. Even the once radical Matteo Salvini of the right-wing Lega (League) joined in the chorus pleading Draghi not to tender his resignation.
There is a chance for the forthcoming elections to change things, but it is highly unlikely. For whoever is ‘in power’ in Italy is so only nominally, as their strings will be pulled, as usual, in Brussels and Frankfurt by the EU and European Central Bank. And behind them lies Germany. In the UK Johnson’s departure potentially puts Brexit at risk, while Draghi’s removal will not lead to any reduction in the EU’s vice-like grip of Italy. The EU is dangling before Italy €200 billion in post-Covid recovery funds – the largest single contribution to any EU country. Whoever wins the election will have to play by Brussel’s rulebook if they want to receive that slice of largesse. And they do.