Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a board member of ENI and the author of POLITICO’s World View column. Her new book, “A Green and Global Europe,” will be published by Polity.
The day his government collapsed, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi warned parliament about Russian interference in the country’s democratic system. And just a week later, evidence that seemingly suggests Moscow may have played a hand in Draghi’s fall by encouraging The League party’s ministers to step down began to surface.
There will now need to be an in-depth enquiry to find out whether Russia did indeed meddle in Italian domestic politics, and caution should be exercised in accepting a story at first blush, which has largely been based on anonymous sources.
What is fact, however, is that the three parties that pulled the plug on Draghi’s coalition government are precisely those with the closest ties to Moscow: Giuseppe Conte’s 5Star Movement, Matteo Salvini’s The League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Coincidence? Perhaps. But either way, going into this September’s election, a mixed bag awaits Italy’s global standing after Draghi.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is no fan of Draghi. Whereas Italy was traditionally part of Europe’s soft underbelly vis-à-vis Russia, under the Italian leader, it changed tack. His government unreservedly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not only by upholding the line that Russia must lose this war but also that Ukraine must win it.
He supported Ukraine’s bid for European Union candidacy, playing a key role in bringing German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron on board during their joint trip to Kyiv in June. He was a key architect of the EU’s sanctions against Russia, especially those targeting the country’s central bank. And notwithstanding Italy’s entrenched pacifism, he has been steadfast in supporting military assistance to Ukraine.
Significantly, under Draghi’s leadership, Italy has also pulled off miracles with energy diversification. At the start of the war, the country’s dependence on Russian gas hovered around 40 percent — but five months on, it’s now just around 10 percent.
While Russia was weaponizing energy by reducing its gas flows to Europe, Italy was busy signing gas contracts and deepening energy partnerships with several countries, including Algeria, Azerbaijan, Angola, Congo, Egypt and Mozambique. Additional Algerian gas —transported to Italy via pipeline — has already come online, explaining the sharp drop in Russian gas imports. And Italian gas storage is proceeding apace, now standing at 72 percent, well on track to reach 90 percent by fall.
Given that Putin’s energy blackmail is a central piece in his war strategy, Italy’s race toward energy diversification is bad news for the Kremlin. It’s no surprise that Egypt and Congo featured among the countries visited by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week.
But while Draghi’s fall was probably celebrated in Moscow, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Italy’s next government will be a blessing for the Kremlin.
Italy will vote on September 25 — and, of course, much can change before then — but according to polls, the incoming parliament will likely see a sharp drop in the weight of pro-Kremlin parties compared to the outgoing one. Taken together, the 5Star Movement, The League and Forza Italia received approximately 60 percent of the vote in 2018. 5Stars was present in each of the three coalition governments formed during the current legislature, The League in two, and Forza Italia in one, with the first two being the dominant political forces in Italy since 2018. Now, however, even if they’re lucky, they’ll see their collective strength being halved.
By contrast, neither of the two parties that are tipped to do best — the far-right Brothers of Italy and the center-left Democrat Party (PD) — have close ties to the Kremlin. Both Brothers of Italy and PD have taken a firm stance on the war in Ukraine. And Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni’s international connections center on the United States Republican Party, not Moscow.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that pro-Russian parties won’t play a role in Italian domestic politics. If Meloni’s Brothers of Italy emerges as the strongest party, The League and Forza Italia are expected to enter a coalition government with the party. But their role is probably going to be severely reduced compared to the last five years.
Seen from this vantage point, Italy’s global position within the Euro-Atlantic family won’t be questioned and may actually be strengthened. Its geopolitical anchoring then wouldn’t rest on an exceptional technocratic leader like Draghi alone, but would be underpinned by a severe reduction in the political weight of populist parties with close ties to Moscow — and Beijing. This is good news.
So, is all well and good? Probably not.
While Italy’s Euro-Atlantic anchoring may be strengthened as a result of the election, its European role may not.
Draghi isn’t only a committed European, but he’s also a highly respected and competent one, his leadership skills and track record towering over most of his peers. It takes a great deal of commitment, skill and competence to play the European game.
The tragedy is that Italy’s potential to play the EU game is much higher now than it has been in decades, precisely as a consequence of Rome’s reaction, under Draghi, to Russia’s weaponization of energy.
Since the eurozone crisis, Italy had been on the demand side of the European equation. It demanded fiscal flexibility during the sovereign debt crisis, responsibility-sharing during the migration crisis, and solidarity during the pandemic. In the first two cases, it was largely rebuffed, and with the third, it has disproportionately benefited from NextGenerationEU funds.
But always being on the “asking” side doesn’t make for a good bargain. Being able to offer something in return makes life much easier, and today, Italy has that potential — precisely because of the extraordinary work undertaken with Draghi at the helm. By being in a position to offer solidarity on energy to countries like Germany, Italy would have a better chance to ask for revisions to the Stability and Growth Pact rules, a follow-up to NextGenerationEU, or further steps toward a common asylum and migration policy.
However, transforming that potential into reality requires a great deal of competence, credibility and leadership — precisely what the government emerging from this September’s election is likely to lack.