How Mario Draghi makes Italy a major player in Europe

ROME – The European Union stumbled over a deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine marred by shortages and logistical problems at the end of March when Mario Draghi took matters into his own hands. Italy’s new prime minister has seized a shipment of vaccines bound for Australia – and with them, an opportunity to show that a new aggressive and powerful force has arrived in the European bloc.

This decision shook a Brussels management which seemed to be asleep at the switch. Within weeks, in part because of its pressing and behind-the-scenes engineering, the European Union had authorized even broader and tougher measures to curb exports of much-needed Covid-19 vaccines. The Australian experience, as officials in Brussels and Italy call it, was a turning point for both Europe and Italy.

He also demonstrated that Mr Draghi, known as the former president of the European Central Bank who helped save the euro, was ready to lead Europe from behind, where Italy has been for years, to the lag of its European partners in terms of economic dynamism and essential reforms. .

During his short tenure – he seized power in February after a political crisis – Mr Draghi quickly used his European connections, his ability to navigate EU institutions and his almost messianic reputation to make Italy a player on the continent in a way. hasn’t been for decades.

With her friend German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down in September, French President Emmanuel Macron facing tough elections next year and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, struggling to demonstrate competence, Mr. Draghi is on the verge of filling a leadership void in Europe.

More and more he seems to speak for all of Europe.

“The difference is that everyone, when Mario Draghi speaks, knows that he is not just pushing, stimulating Italian interest”, but rather the Italian Minister for European Affairs of the European Union, Vincenzo Amendola, said in an interview.

Knowing full well that Mr. Draghi derives his influence from his international reputation, Mr. Amendola said that given the potential leadership void in Europe, “you need stable leaders who bring confidence”.

At home, Mr Draghi’s vaccine lineup in March provided political red meat to an Italian population hungry for vaccines and a sense of action, but it was calculated to enhance Europe’s influence. in general.

Abroad, his first stop, in Libya, sought to restore waning Italian influence in the struggling former Italian colony that is critical to Italy’s energy needs and efforts to stem illegal migration in from Africa. He also did not hesitate to fight with the autocratic Turkish leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “With these dictators – let’s call them what they are – you have to be frank in expressing your diversity of views and visions of society,” Draghi said.

But it is within the European Union that Mr. Draghi has shown that Italy is now beating above its weight.

Last week, Mr. Draghi, by turns funny and wobbly but still blunt, kept the pressure on Brussels over vaccine exports. He referred to the “light” efforts in the initial contract negotiations with pharmaceutical companies, and noted that despite its tough new rules on export bans, the European Union had yet to act.

But he also deftly balanced his criticism of Ms von der Leyen’s commission by defending it after Mr Erdogan denied him a chair, rather than a sofa, during a visit to Turkey last week, claiming that he was “very sorry for the humiliation”.

On his debut in a European meeting as Italian prime minister in February, Mr Draghi, 73, made it clear that he was not there to cheer. He told an economic summit attended by big hitters like his successor at the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, to “dampen your enthusiasm” when it comes to talking about closer fiscal union.

This kind of union is Mr. Draghi’s long-term ambition. But before he can approach it or tackle deep economic issues at home, those around him say Mr Draghi is keenly aware that his priority must be resolving Europe’s response to the pandemic. .

Italian officials say his distance from contract negotiations, which were completed before he took office, gave him freedom of action. He suggested AstraZeneca had misled the bloc over its vaccine supply, selling Europe the same doses two or three times, and he immediately focused on an export ban.

“He understood straight away that the problem was vaccination and the problem of supplies,” said Lia Quartapelle, member of parliament in charge of foreign affairs for the Italian Democratic Party.

On February 25, he joined a European Council video conference with Ms von der Leyen and other leaders of the European Union. The heads of state warmly welcomed him. “We owe you so much,” the Bulgarian Prime Minister told him.

Next, Ms von der Leyen gave an upbeat slide presentation on vaccine deployment in Europe. But the new club member told Ms von der Leyen bluntly that he found his vaccine forecasts “uneasy” and that he was unsure whether the numbers promised by AstraZeneca could be trusted, according to an official present. in the meeting.

He implored Brussels to toughen up and go faster.

Ms Merkel joined him in examining Ms von der Leyen’s figures, which put the Commission President, a former German defense minister, on the back burner. Mr Macron, who had championed Ms von der Leyen’s appointment but quickly formed a strategic alliance with Mr Draghi, piled up. He urged Brussels, which had negotiated the vaccine contracts on behalf of its members, to “put pressure on companies that do not comply”.

At the time, Mrs von der Leyen was the subject of strong criticism in Germany for her perceived weakness on the vaccine issue, even as her own commissioners argued that overreacting to a vaccine export ban could harm the block later.

Mr. Draghi, with his direct speech at the February meeting, tightened the screws. Much like Mr Macron, who has established himself as his partner – both are nicknamed “Dracon” by the Germans – pushing for a more muscular Europe.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Draghi supplemented his more public hard line with a wooing campaign. The Italian, who is known to privately call EU executives and CEOs of the pharmaceutical industry on their mobile phones, contacted Ms von der Leyen.

Of all the European players, he knew her the least well, according to the European Commission and Italian officials, and he wanted to fix it and make sure she didn’t feel isolated.

Then, in early March, as AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine shortages continued to disrupt deployment in Europe and increase public frustration and political pressure, Mr Draghi found the perfect gift for Ms von der Leyen: 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses seized destined for Australia.

“He told me that in the days leading up to he was on the phone a lot with von der Leyen,” said Ms Quartapelle, who spoke to Mr Draghi the day after the shipments freeze. “He worked a lot with von der Leyen to convince her.

The move was appreciated in Brussels, according to Commission officials, as it took the burden off Ms von der Leyen and gave her political cover while allowing her to appear difficult to sign.

The episode became a clear example of how Mr. Draghi is building relationships with the potential to yield big profits not only for himself and for Italy, but for all of Europe.

On March 25, when the Commission became suspicious of more than 29 million doses of AstraZeneca in a warehouse outside Rome, Ms von der Leyen called on Mr Draghi for help, officials told the current calls. He obliged, and the police were quickly dispatched.

In the meantime, MM. Draghi and Macron, joined by Spain and others, continued to support a tougher Commission line on vaccine exports. The Netherlands were against it and Germany, with a vibrant pharmaceutical market, was uncomfortable.

When European leaders reconvened in a video conference on March 25, Ms von der Leyen seemed more confident in the political and pragmatic benefits of stopping exports of Covid vaccines made in the European Union. She presented slides again, this time allowing a broader six-week cut in the bloc’s exports, and Mr. Draghi returned to a supporting role.

“Let me thank you for all the work that has been done,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Draghi, however modestly, gave Italy – and by extension himself – credit for the measures allowing the export bans. “That’s more or less the discussion that took place,” he told reporters, “because that was the question we originally raised.”

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