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Mario Draghi's resignation spells trouble

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
July 21, 2022

A change of government in Italy is part of the folklore. But Prime Minister Mario Draghi's resignation is hugely damaging for the country as it struggles with one of its biggest crises in decades, says Bernd Riegert.

An Italian flag flies over the Quirinale Palace in Rome, Italy
Mario Draghi has decided it's time to say ciao to the drama of Italian politicsImage: Guglielmo Mangiapane/REUTERS

When it comes to longevity in office, Mario Draghi can't be reproached. He has not fared worse than other Italian prime ministers before him. With his 18 months in government, Draghi even scores above the average of all 67 Italian governments in the post-World War II period.

Italy is certainly no stranger to government crises and constant change. From the outside, it seems there is a distinct lack of stability, but it provides an entertaining political spectacle. At home, Italian voters tend to regard the spectacle with a mixture of fascination and rejection. Draghi's resignation, like so many before, again had something of opera seria: drama, envy, jealousy.

There was a bit of everything, but there was no real political reason. At the heart of it all was the  neurosis of the leader of the  left-wing populist 5-Star Movement, Giuseppe Conte, who torpedoed the grand coalition of "national unity."

DW Europe correspondent Bernd Riegert
DW Europe correspondent Bernd Riegert

The current situation could pave the way for Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, who senses an opportunity to lead a new government after the next election. She is ahead in the opinion polls but whether she could set up a right-wing coalition with Silvio Berlusconi (Forza Italia) and Matteo Salvini (League) and form a more stable government than her many predecessors is still in doubt. Perhaps the two Social Democratic parties will also succeed in forming a left-wing majority during the election campaign.

Draghi, who has no party affiliation, was put in charge of a government of national unity as a technocrat after the collapse of the left-wing populist governments led by the 5-Star Movement. And he got plenty right. He led Italy out of the coronavirus crisis and secured unprecedentedly large grants and loans from the EU for reconstruction for the heavily indebted country; he also provided Rome with more clout in the EU than his eurosceptic predecessors. As a former president of the European Central Bank, he had a grasp of economics but could not help to prevent the dramatic rise in inflation.

A strong Italy would be better for all concerned

A visibly exhausted Draghi has decided enough is enough — but that decision spells bad news for Italy and also for the European Union. A strong, hands-on Italy is needed to tackle the looming recession and the energy crisis, and to be a reliable partner in the crisis with Russia over its war against Ukraine. Instead, the country is once again embroiled in petty domestic politics and its complex, completely fragmented party system is weakening the EU.

If the reforms initiated by Draghi after decades of standstill are once again put on hold, it could spell disaster for the Italian economy and society. The markets have already reacting with falling stock prices. There will be even more pressure on Italy's already struggling banks and rising interest rates are not good news for government bonds.

The next government, especially if it is led by Russian-friendly right-wing populists, will have great difficulty steering the extremely indebted country through the stormy times ahead. But if Italy goes bankrupt and the euro comes under pressure, the European Union will teeter. Italy is too big to fail, too important to fail.

Draghi was hailed at the start of his term as the last chance to get the ailing country afloat again. Has this chance been missed?

The next regular election was due early next year in any event, and Draghi would have had to step down.

Now, the drama starts six months earlier, but right in the middle of a perfect storm of inflation and the consequences of war.

This commentary originally appeared in German

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union