The recent invasion of the Republic of Ukraine by the Russian Federation has once again provided an opportunity to consolidate Mario Draghi as one of the leaders of reference in the European Union and, at the same time, to demonstrate his ability to subdue the leader of transalpine politics since September 2018 (we are referring to Matteo Salvini, leader of the League). Draghi, faced with the EU's forceful response of supporting Ukraine by agreeing economic sanctions against the Russian Federation and, at the same time, sending arms to a Ukrainian army that plans to stand up to Vladimir Putin, was met with a forceful response from Salvini, a well-known friend of the autocratic Russian leader. All it took was for Salvini to say "No in my name" to sending arms for Draghi to take the matter to the Italian parliament, which gave him overwhelming support for the arms shipment. So, further ridicule for a Salvini for whom Draghi's presidential mandate is turning into a personal ordeal.
In reality, it is raining on wet ground, because Salvini had already asked Draghi for the heads of two ministers, one for Health (Speranza, of the LeU) and the other for the Interior (Lamorgese, an independent who came to lead this ministry under President Mattarella), and Draghi's response to both demands was a resounding "no". A few months later, Salvini opposed head-on the "green-pass" that Draghi wanted to put in place, and the response of the President of the Council of Ministers was that the "green-pass" would come into operation, no matter what. And that is what happened, making it clear that the politician from Lombardy has little or very little control in the current government.
In this regard, it should be noted that Mattarella's re-election has done nothing but further strengthen Draghi as premier, since it was the veteran Sicilian politician and jurist who called him, in the first week of February 2021, to put him in charge of forming a government. When, almost a year later, the political class failed miserably to find a successor to Mattarella and had to ask him to accept a second term, in the meeting prior to the vote in which the still head of state was re-elected (with 759 votes out of a total of 1. 009 votes), Mattarella had to extract from all those present (i.e. the leaders of all the relevant political parties) his commitment that Draghi would continue to govern until the end of the legislature and that the "maggioranza" (of which Salvini's League is part) would support him without the slightest hint of dissent.
The consequence of all this has been the collapse in voting intentions of Salvini and his party: right now it would be the third most voted force after the Brothers of Italy and the Democratic Party. What is more, in some polls Salvini is below what his party achieved in the March 2018 elections. And, although no one has questioned Salvini for years, his famelous personal "curriculum" (which does not even include a minimum university degree) does nothing but languish before a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (we are talking, of course, about Mario Draghi) who, throughout his almost 75 years of life (he will be 75 in September this year), has been a professor at several Italian universities; a member of the Directorate General of the Treasury for a whole decade (the 1990s); Governor of the Bank of Italy; and, finally, President of the European Central Bank (ECB). In other words, the stark reality is that the apparently powerful and determined Lombard Salvini is no more than a mere subordinate to one of the most important figures in the European leadership. And he had better continue to obey Draghi in everything, because, if his party finally wins the most votes in the March 2023 elections, it will have to be either Mattarella (if he is still at the head of the Quirinal) or Draghi (foreseeable successor to the Sicilian jurist), who will have to form a government with a Salvini who could become the first President of the Italian Council of Ministers in 77 years to reach such an important "magistracy" without having studied for a university degree. It is simply embarrassing, but there is no choice.
Regardless of all this, Draghi realised that this was a unique opportunity to highlight his leadership in the European institutions. With a German chancellor who has just become head of government, and with a French president who is already deep into the election campaign, plus a Pedro Sánchez who still does not count for anyone among the important ones (among other things because the Podemos party, a member of the governing coalition, does not allow him to act freely), Draghi has seen the unity of the European institutions as an opportunity to make his leadership stand out, Draghi has seen in the unity of the 27 countries that make up the European Union a unique opportunity to defend Ukraine and its territorial integrity and, at the same time, to attack a Russian Federation with which, it should be remembered, Italy has very important economic ties, since for decades Italian companies have been among the main exporters from the West to the Eurasian nation.
It is true that Draghi, as is his custom, has been very measured in his words: unlike what happened a few months ago with the Turkish president, whom he described as "one of these dictators that we have no choice but to put up with", for the moment he has not done the same with Putin. On the contrary, he has preferred to join the forceful European response, bearing in mind that within the Union there are a good number of countries that either once belonged to the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three Baltic republics that left the Soviet orbit in 1990), or that were under the influence of the USSR throughout the Cold War (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania). These are times when the "tsar" Putin was a member of the KGB and for which he seems to feel genuine nostalgia, but which do not seem to be coming back, at least for the time being.
It remains to be seen how far and how forceful the EU's response will be, but it seems clear that Draghi does not miss any opportunity to recall that his country is the third largest economy in the eurozone; that they hold the status of "founding country"; and that it was precisely in his native Rome where the treaties establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) were signed back in March 1957.
The current President of the Council of Ministers has not forgotten that his economy is still the most indebted in the entire Union (156% of national GDP), but also that without the transalpine participation, the European Union would lose one of its most important members. Now, with the Stability Pact not being applied and European funds pouring into his country's economy, Salvini's anti-European policy is completely out of play. Matteo Renzi, former president of the Council of Ministers, leader of Italia Viva and now Senator for Tuscany, rightly recalls that both Salvini and Meloni (more the former than the latter) represent the "sovereigntist" front against the Europeanism of Mattarella, Draghi and parties such as the PD, Italia Viva and other minor formations.
Four years of the current legislature have just passed. Salvini began it with great strength, entering the government as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, and in subsequent years gaining control of up to 15 of the country's 20 regions. His (centre-right) coalition is expected to be the clear winner of the next "political elections", which are only a year away. And it is very likely that they will produce an "incarico" to Salvini to form a government because, although Meloni is now clearly ahead in the polls, in the very macho Italy it seems difficult for a woman (the aforementioned Meloni) to be the most voted. Let us not forget that in the history of the Italian Republic, born on 2 June 1946, there have been 31 different premiers (who have headed a total of 67 governments), as well as twelve heads of state, and all of them have been men. Of course, in the unpredictable politics of Transalpine politics, let's keep in mind that anything is possible.
What is certain is that the remaining year of the current legislature is going to be interminable for a Salvini who never thought that in his "triumphal walk" towards the presidency of the Council of Ministers he would meet a rival, Mario Draghi, who dwarfs, and in what way, his already weak figure because the sons of organic politics like Salvini do not have the level of education or the intellectual capacity of Mattarella, Draghi and company. Just as well, for the leader of the League, that in a year's time the former will surely have been able to retire definitively from politics and the latter will become president of the Italian Republic. And with Draghi, Italian politics seems to have recovered the best days of the old Christian Democracy: that of De Gasperi, Fanfani and Moro, the one that made Italy a true "bel paese", which Draghi is now trying to revive with great force.
-Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book Historia de la Italia republicana, 1946-2021 (Madrid, Sílex Ediciones, 2021).