For almost a year-and-a-half, Italy’s politics has been characterised by a highly unusual degree of stability and consensus. During Mario Draghi’s premiership, the country has come through the worst of the Covid pandemic and successfully laid claim to a large tranche of recovery fund money from the EU. Much of the credit for this has rightly gone to the former European Central Bank chief, who was parachuted into the role of prime minister to bring order to chaos, following the ignominious collapse of the previous government.
This period of calm, which has been highly popular with voters, was always to be time-limited. Mr Draghi has presided with skill over a broad-based national unity government created to deal with an emergency; but although he is not the first unelected economist to run the country, Italy is a democracy not a technocracy. Normal politics was due to resume via elections next spring. But that timetable now risks being unhelpfully accelerated, following the decision by the Five Star Movement to boycott a confidence vote last week. Mr Draghi promptly resigned, only to be talked out of doing so immediately by President Sergio Mattarella. But depending on the outcome of fraught negotiations, he may decide to go this week.
In the context of an economic and geopolitical crisis likely to peak this winter, Mr Draghi’s early departure would be bad news for Italy and for Europe. The fallout from Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine has, in effect, generated a second emergency in the wake of the pandemic. It raises multiple challenges for a country that remains dangerously vulnerable to external shocks. On Monday Mr Draghi was in Algiers urgently seeking alternative energy sources to Russian gas, the supply of which is being weaponised by Vladimir Putin. Italy also needs to roll over €200bn of debt later this year, and the country’s borrowing costs have risen sharply as political instability returns to Rome. This week the European Central Bank is set to raise interest rates for the first time in a decade, ratcheting up the pressure.
In such treacherous circumstances, Mr Draghi represents a safe pair of hands, and his high reputation in Brussels and with the bond markets constitutes a significant asset for Italy. As Britain undergoes yet more political turmoil, and Emmanuel Macron struggles to impose his political will in France, Mr Draghi’s steadying influence on the European stage is also needed in a period when unity over Ukraine will be severely tested.
It is possible that another leader could be appointed to replace him, if he opts to go. But a plausible outcome of an autumn election would be a hard-right government, possibly headed by the leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, Giorgia Meloni. Ms Meloni’s party, which has stayed outside the national unity coalition, currently tops polls and would pick nationalist fights with Brussels on issues ranging from economic reform to immigration and same-sex marriage. It is hard to think of a more destabilising turn of events at a time of continental crisis.
Last weekend, more than 100 mayors joined business and union leaders in calling on Mr Draghi to rethink his decision to resign. They should be listened to. Italy must eventually resolve its political differences at the ballot box. But the election should take place next spring, and Mr Draghi should remain in post for now.