In the six months since becoming Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi has achieved what eluded almost all of his predecessors: the rest of Europe has started to listen.
Draghi has shown he is able to negotiate with Paris and Berlin as an equal. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron consult him in a way they never consulted his predecessor Giuseppe Conte.
Yet analysts and observers say one Gordian Knot that has troubled a long list of Italian prime ministers is shaping up as the biggest test of Draghi’s ability to influence EU policy: migration.
Ahead of the EU summit last week the Italian prime minister had lobbied to put relaunching discussions on a EU migration solution on the agenda.
Italy has long complained it is disproportionately affected by refugees arriving from north Africa. Current rules on redistributing migrants throughout the EU have proved ineffective and there remains minimal desire among many EU countries to reach a new agreement.
While a mention of migration, focused on strengthening the EU’s external borders, was inserted into the summit’s conclusions EU leaders spent little more than five minutes discussing it.
At home Draghi’s political opponents — notably Giorgia Meloni of the rightwing Brothers of Italy party — pounced on the lukewarm response as another example of the EU ignoring Italy’s migration woes.
The career central banker declared himself “satisfied” with the summit’s treatment of the issue, but some EU diplomats noted he had “failed to read the room”, and underestimated the reluctance of other EU countries to engage on the issue.
Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs, said that the significant difference between Draghi’s successes to date — such as his passing of Italy’s €220bn recovery plan — and the issue of migration is that there is no consensus inside the EU on a solution.
“With the Next Generation EU plans everyone knew that there was a huge investment in it succeeding across the EU,” she says. “Italy’s bargaining power was high, and when you add in Draghi’s leadership skills it works. When it comes to migration, even if the leadership skills are there and you are meeting with the right people you need a critical mass of support.”
Italian officials say that Draghi never expected to achieve a breakthrough at the European summit, and was aiming to revive a discussion. Draghi’s migration strategy is two-pronged: focusing on political stability in north Africa, especially in Libya, to reduce the flow of migrants into southern Italy; and then working towards a new pan-EU agreement for fairly redistributing those that arrive.
Giovanni Orsina, director of Luiss university School of Government, warns that a “Turkey-style” agreement with Libya, which would involve the EU providing cash to the country to control migratory flows, will not be as simple as some in the Italian government may hope.
Unlike Turkey, Libya is a weak state. And pushing migrants from sub-Saharan Africa back into Libya may hide the problem from sight, but does not remove humanitarian concerns about their treatment.
So early into Draghi’s time in office the jury is still out. Yet the consequences of his ability to shape European migration policy could have as much importance at home as abroad.
Draghi currently holds an unprecedented parliamentary majority to push through his reform programme, with Meloni’s party providing the only opposition.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party which signed up to the Draghi government, has built his career on blasting Brussels for failing Italy on migration. One of Draghi’s achievements has been to — perhaps temporarily — moderate the anti-EU elements of the League. But should he fail to show progress on a new EU migration deal, then Salvini is likely to see an opening to turn against the government ahead of elections expected in 2023.
“There is a political project under way to Europeanise the League, to make it less Eurosceptic and nationalist,” says Tocci. “But migration will continue to linger as the main argument for Eurobashing in Italy, and if it becomes an issue again then that project will become far more difficult to accomplish”.