IN FEBRUARY US and many others breathed a sigh of relief after Mario Draghi agreed to become Prime Minister of Italy. Because “Super Mario” had not saved the euro, in 2012, with his promise that he and the European Central Bank that he then headed would do “whatever it takes” to prevent the project from breaking out. collapse? These three words were enough to calm the markets, to lower the interest rates on the debt of the weakest members of the zone. In the nine years since, these countries have saved tens of billions of euros through reduced borrowing costs.
Under Mr. Draghi’s leadership, Italy’s debt yield is currently only about 1.2 percentage points higher than Germany’s. The government he heads can count on a large majority of seats in parliament, and the European Commission is about to start releasing around € 200 billion ($ 245 billion) in covid-19 clawback funds, to pour over the next three years. four years. This sum is equivalent to 12% of the annual amount of Italy GDP, a tidy stimulus by anyone’s standards except Joe Biden’s. The committee was generally satisfied with the promises made by Mr. Draghi on how he will spend the money and the reforms of the sclerotic Italian government that he intends to undertake. So far, so good.
Yet Italian policy remains unpredictable. A recent increase in the number of migrants arriving by boat, mainly on the Italian island of Lampedusa, has made headlines in alarmist newspapers. Some 13,000 have arrived so far this year, triple the number this time a year ago. That’s well below the peak of 180,000 for all of 2016, but the boating season is only just beginning. Already, populist politicians have taken hold of the issue and will betray it if the numbers continue to climb. (An influx of migrants to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta is also a headache for Spain’s socialist government.)
A tense battle is currently being waged for the domination of the Italian nationalist right. Matteo Salvini, the far right leader of the Northern League, finds himself in a perilous position, his party having lost its support for an even more radical formation, the Brothers of Italy (FreI), a descendant of the Italian Social Movement founded in 1946 by former supporters of Benito Mussolini. Mr Salvini left government in 2019 in an unsuccessful attempt to trigger a snap election he could very well have won. His party is still the most popular in Italy’s fragmented political landscape, pollsters say. But that of Giorgia Meloni FreI is catching up.
the FreI is the only one of the main Italian parties that has not backed Mr Draghi’s government, and that doesn’t seem to hurt him in a country where many are still wary of bankers and Brussels. It may not be long before FreI exceeds the League. In some polls he has already overtaken the main center-left Democrats, now led by Enrico Letta, a capable man who briefly served as prime minister in 2013-14.
Together, the League and the FreI can now have enough votes to form a government, especially if they can chain a former maverick prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Both parties are nativists and are wary of the EU, but neither advocates Italexit.
Italian MPs may not have to face the electorate for another two years; an election must take place in May 2023 at the latest. But we could come much sooner. Those who know him say Mr Draghi wants to be Italy’s next president. That job is up for grabs next February, but some were hoping that incumbent Sergio Mattarella would agree to run again and make way for Mr. Draghi later. This week he seemed to rule that out.
The relentless rise of the Brothers of Italy, and Mr. Salvini’s need to veer to the right to match them, reminds us that clenched nationalism remains popular with many voters in the European Union. While this has never been in doubt in Poland and Hungary, it is also true in Western Europe. Some recent polls put French President Emmanuel Macron in a virtual stalemate with his blood-and-blood rival Marine Le Pen in a putative second-round match next year. In Spain, the opposition Popular Party is seeking to strike a deal with Vox, a far-right newcomer, to form a government for the Madrid region.
European governments have fought collectively and individually against the covid-19 pandemic, mismanaging the early stages of vaccination and the most recent wave of infection. An election season begins and the incumbents seem to see unpleasant surprises. One in Italy, which sits on Europe’s largest debt stock, would indeed be disastrous. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Forgotten, But Not Gone”