By Arab News
By Dr. John C. Hulsman*
Giuseppe Verdi, the country’s passionate Italian composer, put it best when he said: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” Having lived in five other European countries, I can personally attest to the fact that Italians remain uniquely adept at the art of living life.
However, along with its glittering culture, other more pernicious stereotypes of Italy have remained all too true. A watchword for weak and ever-changing governments, political instability, bureaucratic sclerosis, and a thicket of regulations too opaque to understand, Italy has often seemed to endure in spite of itself. As one American libertarian friend of mine put it, Italy is far and away his favorite country because it has proved a people can thrive without having any discernible government at all.
But lazy stereotypes of the past no longer accurately describe the political risk situation in Europe, for the continent’s establishment is on fire. In dominant Germany, the long-ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel finds itself behind the resurgent Greens in the polls for the upcoming September parliamentary elections.
In great power France, in scenes reminiscent of the great spy thriller “The Day of the Jackal,” President Emmanuel Macron, that darling of the European establishment, faces a restive army and the reinvigorated far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, nipping at his heels in polling ahead of the spring 2022 presidential election. With the Greens likely to unseat the long-dominant CDU in Germany, and with France’s Fifth Republic imperiled as it has not been since the early 1960s, ironically it is Mario Draghi’s Italy that stands out as a relative beacon of stability in this coming era of change.
This leaves Italy as the great European power whose firmly establishment government’s actual policy decisions will matter most in terms of setting the EU’s trajectory. As the well-respected former head of the European Central Bank, Draghi was brought into power to make use of both his formidable reputation and world-class administrative skills to speed up Italy’s sclerotic vaccination program; to wisely spend the huge sum of $315 billion the EU has forwarded to Italy to resurrect its economy in the wake of the pandemic; and to finally administer long-needed structural economic reforms. Success in policy terms mean the EU’s huge gamble in backing Italy will have paid off and momentum for further integration remains viable, just as failure means nothing less than the end of the European dream.
On the surface, Draghi is off to a good start. As of early May, the percentage of Italians who had received at least one dose of a coronavirus disease vaccine was up to 25 percent, exactly the EU average. While this accomplishment leaves Europe lagging far behind the Anglo-Saxon world (at the same time, the UK had given at least one shot to 51 percent of its people and the US 44 percent), at least the EU has not let the gaping gap between the two expand any further. After an absolutely dreadful start to the vaccination process, Europe is at last getting itself into gear.
Likewise, at the end of April, the Italian parliament overwhelmingly approved Draghi’s long-term plans for spending the mountain of money ceded to him to remake the Italian economy. The plan reads precisely like the good term paper one would expect Draghi to concoct. It calls for far greater spending on digitalization of the Italian government (in an effort to finally force it into the 21st century), a greening of the Italian economy, huge infrastructure projects, and making broadband internet universal. There is little doubt that college professors everywhere would give the Italian premier an “A” for his thesis.
Yet three major problems remain between Draghi and actual policy success. First, follow-through in Italy (as in the EU as a whole) has always been the problem, not outlining endless plans. The real question is will the money be spent as it is outlined, with a minimum of corruption, in a timely manner and to the greatest effect?
Secondly, Draghi has chosen to give out the candy first, opening the spending spigots, and saving the pain of desperately needed structural reforms (with the entitled public administration, glacial judiciary and thicket of contradictory regulations all being in dire need of updating) for later. After a generation of stagnation and non-action, it is a more than reasonable question to wonder if actual hard-hitting reforms will ever be made.
Third, the world will not stand still and let Draghi work his magic in a bubble. Just this week, Italy’s intelligence service claimed that 50,000 to 70,000 migrants are massing in Libya and Tunisia to soon attempt the crossing into Europe. Such an unexpected outcome could upend all of Draghi’s fine plans, forcing him to focus on this refugee crisis rather than the remaking of Italy.
In other words, the jury is still very much out on whether Draghi will succeed in remaking the long-dilapidated Italian state. Amid all the tumult now raging in Europe, no question on the continent is more important for its future.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.