“Would it not be simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?” Bertolt Brecht’s line is often quoted after dubious upsets in the democratic process – such as the imposition of Mario Monti’s austerity administration in Italy in 2011, or the crushing of Syriza’s aspirations in Greece in 2015. And yet, Mario Draghi’s top-down appointment as Italy’s new prime minister tells a different story, one that doubles as a cautionary tale for the rest of Europe.
A recent survey shows that 85% of Italians approve of the former European Central Bank chief and establishment prodigy running the government following the collapse of Giuseppe Conte’s administration. This is an astonishing result for a country where combined support for populist parties represented an absolute majority at the last elections. How can such a glaring contradiction be explained?
Another poet may come to our rescue. In Anywhere Out of the World, Charles Baudelaire engages in a conversation with his soul, inquiring where it might finally find happiness. He proposes Lisbon, Batavia, and the Baltic, but the soul remains silent. Until, finally, it explodes: “Anywhere! As long as it is out of the world!”
Anywhere, but out of here, is also the aspiration of a country mired in decades of economic stagnation and inconclusive politics. The extremism of Italy’s leading parties is the expression of a national mood of despondency that spirals and turns in all directions, haphazardly and unpredictably.
That despair has now turned against the political class itself. Over the past three years Italians have witnessed the entire political spectrum in government: Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega, the Five Star Movement, and the Partito Democratico have all had spells in power in a spinning merry-go-round. The result has been two political crises and endless bouts of infighting while the pandemic rages and the economy plummets.
Counterintuitively, the unelected Draghi’s principal mission will be to set politics, and not just the economy, back on track. He is a member of no party but his cabinet includes a staggering number of politicians and political shades, from the Lega to the left, passing via Berlusconi, the Five Star and the democrats. This is a family album of Italian politics, not a technocratic administration. Draghi has been called on to teach manners to this inconclusive bunch. It is political pedagogy at its purest.
Indeed, Salvini appears to have understood the golden opportunity it presents for him. He has engaged in an unprecedented pivot, exchanging dreams of Italexit for professions of faith in the EU. That U-turn is a clever ploy to shed an extremist far-right image and build support to lead the next government.
Draghi reserved the technocratic card for the economic ministries. A team of “Draghi boys” – for they are all boys – will steer the investment of over €200bn in EU grants. There is little novelty here. Not visionaries, not even economists with bold ideas but the former director of the Bank of Italy and the former CEO of Vodafone will call the shots. It’s an economic mainstream takeover. But this seems not to matter, as Italians no longer aspire to anything radical.
Draghi seems to be responding to a longstanding national desire to become a “normal” country. Why can’t we, Italians ask, be like France or Spain? Why can’t we have competent politicians in place of a never-ending circus? And yet, here lies the danger.
At the beginning of this global pandemic it was common to hear commentators warn about the folly of returning to normal after Covid. Normal was the problem. So what is the normal that Italy aspires to now? The spectacle in most of Europe is one of slow-motion decline, where business-as-usual presides over growing inequality, democratic and environmental degradation and a dramatic loss of any grip over the challenges of the 21st century.
Centrist policies led the eurozone to a near breakup following the 2008 financial crisis; establishment politicians prepared the ground for nationalist extremism, as the effects of a dysfunctional economy fell disproportionately on the poorest; it is our “normal” development model that is precipitating climate collapse, making labour ever more precarious, turning worker against migrant.
The Italian twist has the benefit of making explicit what is merely implicit in most European countries: the absence of alternative, the infamous Tina (“there is no alternative”), that haunts contemporary politics like a tragic death drive.
For an economic and social laggard such as Italy, joining the European mainstream pack might seem better than nothing. This lowering of political ambition, too, is explicit in Italy but implicit across the continent.
Indeed, the poverty and narrow scope of Italian politics brings home to us the decay of all national politics in Europe. On their own, none of Europe’s diminished nation states have the ability to implement transformative policies: to rein in multinationals, decarbonise the economy, or tap the exorbitant wealth of the few, made even more scandalous by a pandemic billionaire boom. Politics is about transforming the world. And that politics has no longer a right of residence on our continent.
Europe should look at Italy as a concave mirror; it shows a larger, if slightly distorted, theatrical but honest representation of itself. Be cautious with cheers and jests alike: de te fabula narratur – Italy’s story is yours too.
And yet, even if Draghi is no radical, there is one area where he might dare speak up. Mr “whatever it takes”, the “saviour” of the euro, knows better than most that only a genuine economic and political union can empower European states to recover collective sovereignty over their destiny. The EU’s post-pandemic, quasi-federal recovery fund is the embryo of that leap. A common tax on digital companies, a European carbon tax, the joint closure of tax havens and a collective drive to reform an unstable and unjust global order could also be within the reach of a unified Europe.
An extraordinary time such as this requires governments that aspire not to leave the world, like Baudelaire’s tormented soul, or merely to administer relative decline efficiently, but to upturn a bankrupt system. Draghi won’t deliver that. And the risk of a renewed nationalist backlash is real. But he still has an opportunity to turn this normality-takeover into something that paves the way for the ambition and vision our continent so desperately needs.