In April 2009, the German chancellor Angela Merkel stood waiting on the banks of the Rhine for the then Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to walk together over the bridge onto the French side of the river.
The ceremonious journey was a symbolic one, honouring the fallen victims of conflict between NATO countries on the continent over 60 years before. Berlusconi arrived, wandered out holding his phone in one hand and gestured to the German chancellor that he would be continuing this call. Merkel would make the crossing alone.
Italy’s ability to repeatedly mock diplomatic convention and allow its debt-to-GDP ratio to climb unchecked during the post-2008 recovery, made it the European establishment’s enfant terrible. Growing Eurosceptism in Italy, coupled with distrust from the heads of European institutions that Italy was a reliable partner, made the country the rebel teammate.
It would take a European insider to undo almost a decade of bad reputation, the establishment wunderkind, Mario Draghi. Famous for a spotless resume, Draghi is turning out to be not only the solution to Italy’s internal political disarray, but also to European unity. The prime minister is turning the country from juvenile delinquent into proper “model European”.
Long gone are the days of the Troika. Rome’s relationship with Paris and Berlin has suddenly blossomed, and according to diplomats from both countries, Draghi holds regular calls with Macron and Merkel.
Draghi’s decision in early March to block vaccine exports by AstraZeneca was applauded as a “muscular approach” to a company that defied the EU. His use of the European Commission’s legal arm in blocking the vaccine exports signalled to the EU his—and Italy’s—commitment to European unity.
When Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, was snubbed by Turkish president Erdogan, Draghi called him out, labelling him a dictator. This signalled the return of Italy’s focus inwards, towards the European continent, and less towards alternative partners such as Moscow and Beijing, with whom it was becoming dangerously close during the pandemic.
Yesterday, Draghi presented Italy’s plans to spend €200 billion of the European Central Bank’s recovery fund. His strategy is a multi-pronged approach to restore Italy’s economic ills. More than half the funds will be allocated to green energy and digitalisation, others will focus on boosting competition and making it easier for companies to invest and hire.
The question remains as to whether Draghi can bring Italy back into the fold for good, or whether he will now struggle to meet the high expectations he has set.