Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s coalition government has collapsed. His resignation marked the end of a government that provided stability in one of the most populist, eurosceptic, pro-Putin and pro-China parliaments in Europe. Given that Italy’s centre-left bloc is deeply divided, its government – which formed in response to the covid-19 crisis – was a happy anomaly.
Today, the European Union and its member states face another crisis: dependence on Russian energy and the threat to the bloc’s energy sovereignty. Draghi was the right person at the right time to respond to the fallout from the pandemic. And he proved to be just as adept at meeting these new challenges. This year, its policies have reduced Italy’s dependence on Russian gas has fallen from 40% to less than 25% – and it has been heavily involved in plans to reduce that rate to zero by the end of 2023. However , the three most pro-Russian parties in the Italian parliament – the League, Forza Italia and the Five Star Movement – had other plans. And Italy is now set for an election on September 25, less than a year before Draghi’s term ends.
So, after 18 months of skillfully handling the pandemic, handing out NextGenerationEU funds, overseeing Italy’s G20 presidency, and adapting in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, Draghi’s run is over. Italy and the EU will miss his strong leadership as they struggle to deal with the energy crisis.
The war has caused political unrest across the EU, particularly in member states that are particularly dependent on Russian gas or view the country as a security threat. Italy, for its part, seemed to largely cope with the situation.
However, the Five Star Movement decided last week to withdraw its support for the government. At first glance, this decision seemed to stem from Draghi’s commitment to continue supporting Ukraine militarily. Below, however, was the leader of the Five Star Movement, Giuseppe Conte, whom Draghi replaced as prime minister. Conte, now determined to use the war as a tool to maintain his own political relevance, is trying to save what is left of his party – which won 32% of the vote in the 2018 election, but now votes only 11.7%.
Draghi always knew he couldn’t count on some members of his ruling coalition, especially the Five Star Movement and parts of Matteo Salvini’s League. He was also aware that this unreliability posed a serious threat to Italy’s policy towards Russia – and to its role at European level and as a reliable ally of Germany and France. . Italy’s leadership in the EU and cooperation with other powerful member states will be important in strengthening the foundations of the union after the end of the war. Draghi would have played a key role there. He is also said to have made a major contribution to EU policy in areas such as defense and security, where his government has shown both a commitment and an ability to strengthen European sovereignty.
Therefore, those who overthrew the government bear a great deal of responsibility for what happened next. Draghi’s successor will have to deal with the social and economic consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine, including its effects on public opinion. A recent ECFR poll indicates that the cost of living and energy crises are driving EU citizens – especially Italians – to want to end the war as soon as possible, even if that means that Ukraine would be forced to give up part of its territory.
Italian leaders should respond to this public pressure by striving to become a credible supporter, not just a partner, of pro-European economic and industrial powers such as France and Germany. Indeed, Italy accounts for 17% of EU industrial production – more than any other member state except Germany. Italy can only realize its potential through close cooperation with Germany and France, which would benefit all Italians.
Thanks to Draghi’s leadership, Italy had finally begun to realize its potential by addressing its historic problems. He steered Italian policy towards full support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion – despite fluctuating public opinion on the issue. Draghi even guided French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz through their initial hesitation to support Ukraine’s bid for EU membership. Furthermore, he played an important role in the formulation of EU sanctions against Russia – and, as we have seen, in Italian and European energy policy. During the political crisis that will eventually bring down his government, he spends two days in Algiers to find alternatives to Russian gas. This demonstrated a willingness to put national interest before career, which is increasingly rare among Italian politicians.
Concretely, Draghi’s legacy will lie in Rome’s progress to stand alongside Paris and Berlin as leaders of the EU. Moreover, he reassured the United States by stepping out of the Russian and Chinese shadow cast by the two previous governments. Finally, he pushed for the creation of the new “anti-fragmentation” tool of the European Central Bank, which is designed to deal with the widening of bond spreads in Europe and thus support the Italian economy (among others).
As the old saying goes: no one is indispensable in politics. Yet the fall of Draghi’s government is an act of self-harm by his rivals. That said, his government set an example of pragmatism and realism for his successor – and left a legacy that would be hard to undo. Unless populist and Eurosceptic parties take over, Draghi’s policy focus on Russia, Ukraine, transatlantic relations and the EU is likely to survive the difficult times ahead, not least because of a lack of credible alternatives.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.