Australian Outlook

Rome Ain't Burning

10 Aug 2022
By Dr Andrea Benvenuti
Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi addressing the European Parliament. Source: European Parliament, Flickr,

The resignation of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi elicited concern from many pundits. Although Italy’s future may be uncertain, it will not stray from democracy. 

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the title of a 1988 film written and directed by acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Far from me is the idea of poking fun at the messy nature of sentimental break-ups. But the edgy, emotional, and frankly over-the-top reaction of some commentators to the resignation of Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi on 21 July brought that title back to my mind. How else would you otherwise interpret claims that this ousting was a “populist coup,” portending Italy’s descent into authoritarianism? If one wished to be a tad facetious, one could say that it is segments of the commentariat itself that are seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  

Don’t get me wrong. The end of Draghi’s eighteen-month-long national unity government is not good news. The reserved and no-nonsense “Super Mario,” as journalists often call him for his role in rescuing the euro a decade ago, provided steady leadership in a time of turmoil at home and abroad. Appointed by President Sergio Mattarella in February 2021 following the implosion of Giuseppe Conte’s government amid frictions over its economic response to the COVID-19 emergency, the technocrat-turned-prime minister capably steered Italy through a pandemic that had hit the country hard in 2020. He concocted an ambitious package of economic and administrative reforms — the so-called National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP) — to allow Italy to secure more than 200 billion in loans and grants from the European Union’s (EU) COVID-19 recovery fund. In foreign policy, Draghi navigated an increasingly tense international environment with aplomb, by keeping Italy firmly anchored to its Atlantic and European moorings and resisting the sirens of pacifism from within his coalition and sections of the Italian public opinion. His steadfast stance against Russia’s aggression on Ukraine and his role in masterminding a raft of extensive Western sanctions against Moscow deserve praise. 

The fact that Draghi’s national unity government had an end-by date he was expected to step down by the Spring 2023 general election is hardly a consolation. At a time when the country faces significant economic headwinds and craves effective political stewardship (like many other western liberal democracies, incidentally), the last thing Italy needs is a bout of renewed political instability. However, while bad news, Draghi’s resignation does not spell disaster for Italy. There are three reasons why this is the case. Firstly, the probable victory of a centre-right coalition at the next general election (now brought forward to 25 September) will produce no authoritarian turn in Italian politics. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the nationalist right-wing Brothers of Italy or Fratelli d’Italia (FdL) and tipped to become the next (and first female) prime minister, is no reincarnation of the deceased fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. To be sure, FdL has some extreme right-wing followers in its midst. FdL also traces its lineage back to the now defunct Italian Social Movement or Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a party established in 1946 by Mussolini’s sympathisers. Meloni herself cut her teeth in politics in the MSI youth wing. Yet, in 1995, MSI’s last leader, Massimo Fini, broke with the party’s unsavoury past unequivocally. And so did Meloni. Minister of Youth from 2008 to 2011 in the Berlusconi government, the mild-mannered but combative Roman hardly provides a systemic challenge to Italian democracy. The other key component in a future centre-right coalition government is Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League (Lega). Despite its populist leanings, the League is no authoritarian outfit either. It has long given up calls for the separation of Northern Italy from the South. For years it has held power in several local towns and regional councils across Northern Italy and provided ministers to Silvio Berlusconi’s various governments. In 2018, it formed government with the populist left-wing Five Star Movement or Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). For all its Eurosceptic bluster, the League took no steps to pull Italy out of the euro during this brief spell in office. One may not like its rhetoric or its tough line on illegal immigration, but Salvini’s party has no plan to subvert Italian democracy. Nor, of course, has Silvio Berlusconi’s centrist Go Italy (Forza Italia), the coalition’s third force. 

Secondly, whichever coalition governs Italy after September, it will be very unlikely to throw fiscal caution to the winds. Despite Italy’s reputation for fiscal profligacy, governments of different hues have not been fiscally irresponsible in recent years. Before COVID-19 struck, Italy had been recording a fiscal surplus, almost without a break, since 1992. True, Italy’s large public debt — currently running at above 150 percent of its GDP — remains a threat to the euro’s viability. Yet, under constant pressure from global financial markets, Italy has no option but to run tight budgets. This will be the case for whoever forms government after 25 September. 

Thirdly, Italy is unlikely to drift from its traditional Atlantic and European moorings should a centre-right coalition gain power. Its overriding national interest lies in a close partnership with its European and Atlantic allies. For all its loud populist noises and Eurosceptic posturing, not even Italy’s first populist League-M5S coalition government (2018-19) strayed too far away from these traditional alliances. Much is made in the press of Italy’s friendly relations with Russia. However, now that Moscow has shown itself in its true aggressive colours, it will be difficult for Italy (as for any other EU member) to go back to business as usual in the current circumstances. In any case, Meloni has expressed strong support for Ukraine and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and her attitude may well counterbalance Salvini’s and Berlusconi’s friendliness towards Russia.  

This, of course, is not to say that no significant risks lie ahead for Italy. Draghi’s international reputation, credibility, and competence will be hard to replace. His departure will inevitably heighten international anxieties about Italy’s ability to service its debt against raising interest rates and growing domestic uncertainty. The lack of a clear majority after the election or the emergence of a weak government will make Italy more challenging to govern. It may also undermine Italy’s ability to draw down the EU’s COVID-19 recovery funds, which are crucial to the country’s post-pandemic economic revival. To do so, Rome must stick to the schedule set out in the NRRP (and agreed with the EU). Failure to implement the NRRP would represent a significant economic setback for Italy and mar relations with its EU partners and the European Commission. In foreign policy, a future centre-right government (if it indeed gets enough numbers to govern) may still adopt a more equivocal stance on Ukraine. This would be a blow to the EU’s and NATO’s struggle against Russia’s aggressive brand of revisionism.  

Yet, for all these risks, Rome is not burning, nor is Italian democracy in jeopardy. More simply, Italy is entering a period of renewed political uncertainty, which is not so uncommon in and around and even well after election time. Admittedly, it may not be all plain sailing, but Italy will cope as it has always done since 1945. After all, democracy can be a messy affair and Italy is no stranger to some of the challenges experienced by other Western liberal democracies at present. 

Associate Professor Andrea Benvenuti currently teaches international history and contemporary diplomacy at UNSW in Sydney. At UNSW, he also taught courses in European Politics. He received an MA (by research) in Politics from Monash University and DPhil in International Relations from Oxford University. His core research interests centre on cold war security and diplomacy. He can be reached at For further information visit:

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