Mario Draghi has bigger ambitions than just seeing Italy through to the next general election

Although appointed unexpectedly, Mario Draghi is much more than just a stop-gap, technocratic Prime Minister. Sergio Fabbrini argues that Draghi's vision for Europe could make Italy a key voice in the European debate

A discourse of grand politics

Mario Draghi's speech to the Italian Senate on 17 February outlining his government’s priorities was a discourse of grand politics. He set out a vision of both Italy and Europe in a combined future.

Angela Merkel's Chancellorship ends in September, and Germany's government is in transition. With its leadership enslaved to a mercantilist vision of politics, only Emmanuel Macron’s France has, until now, put forward a vision of the EU's future. The visions of Draghi and Macron do not coincide, but any discussion about Europe should be structured around them.

Ceding and sharing sovereignty

The starting point of Draghi’s vision is national sovereignty. In a passage with a formidable rhetorical impact, Draghi claimed:

There is no sovereignty in solitude. There is only the illusion of what we are, in the oblivion of what we were and the denial of what we could be

Sovereignty, indeed, is not just a legal concept, but also, and above all, an empirical system of public policies. It is possible to be (formally) sovereign but (materially) dependent on others. Sovereignty does not guarantee self-sufficiency because laws cannot replace reality. In an era of interdependencies, not even a great power can consider itself to be self-sufficient, much less so a middling-size country like Italy. Draghi even went one step further:

Without Italy there is no Europe. But, outside of Europe, there is less Italy

Emmanuel Macron proposed the vision of a sovereign Europe with state-like features. Draghi, in contrast, advanced the vision of a federal Europe whose sovereignty is divided among the national states and the supranational institutions. For Draghi, in fact:

National states remain the reference point for our citizens, but in the areas marked out by their weakness they cede national sovereignty in order to gain shared sovereignty

If sovereignty can be divided, the problem is where to place its elements. National states are important for their citizens, giving them identity and protection. It makes no sense to strip them bare. States need to redefine sovereignty, starting a constitutional negotiation to establish what they can and can't do by themselves.

The problem is that in the EU, the 'areas marked out by their weakness' are exactly those national states wish to keep for themselves. Examples are tax policy, security policy, defence policy, foreign policy, and border control policy. Shared areas, such as agricultural policy or specific market regulatory policies, could have stayed under states' control.

Draghi versus Macron

Macron’s state-like vision seems to imply the generalised transfer of sovereignty from national capitals to Brussels. Draghi’s federal vision implies a rebalancing of responsibilities between Brussels and the states. Draghi's approach would lead, theoretically, to a supra-nationalisation of policy areas to be governed together, and a renationalisation of those which the states can govern better alone.

If, for Macron, the EU seems the large-scale projection of the national state, for Draghi it seems to be a compound organisation consisting of states and their citizens. It is not a question of putting the European state up against the national state, but of composing, within a single institutional and legal framework, different types of sovereignty exercised democratically at different levels of government.

Win-win situation

For Draghi, therefore, the relationship between European integration and national states is not a zero-sum game (if one wins the others lose). Rather, it is a positive-sum game (both can win). The EU and the states can get stronger together.

The EU must be strengthened by approving 'a common budget that can support countries in periods of recession'. It's a budget which should also help finance the production of European public goods, from defence to infrastructure, from fighting epidemics to fighting unemployment. At the same time, the states must be strengthened, as is happening with the Next Generation EU (NG-EU) programme.

For Draghi, the relationship between European integration and national states is a positive-sum game: the EU and the states can get stronger together

The national recovery and resilience plan (NRRP) will utilise NG-EU resources to rebuild after the pandemic. These resources can 'be used as levers for spending on research and development, education and training, regulation, incentivisation and taxation.' In Italy, for Draghi, these must not simply list projects to complete in the coming years. They must also articulate 'where we want to be in 2026 and what our goals are for 2030 and 2050.'

In Draghi’s vision the strengthening of the EU and of Italy is reciprocal. If Macron’s vision prefigures a sovereign Europe which replaces the sovereignty of states, Draghi’s federal vision prefigures a Europe made up of distinct, positively correlated forms of sovereignty. This vision, moreover, could help sovereigntists free themselves of their primitivism.

A pro-European vision to solve national problems

In short, Draghi has not merely affirmed the pro-European character of his government. He has set out a pro-European vision as an important part of the solution to Italy’s national problems.

This federal vision can be conceptualised in different ways. James Madison, architect of the American constitution, spoke of a compound republic (a republic of many republics) in 1787. Jacques Delors, the European Commission's most influential 20th century president, referred in 1994 to a Fédération d’Etats-nations.

However it is defined, Draghi’s pluralist vision can play a crucial role in Europe. He could restore Italy's status as a key voice in European debate, especially in view of the imminent launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

With Draghi and Macron, the EU finally has the chance to free itself from the prison of short-sightedness.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Sergio Fabbrini
Sergio Fabbrini
Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Intesa Sanpaolo Chair on European Governance and Dean of the Political Science Department at LUISS Guido Carli in Rome

Sergio was the Pierre Keller Visiting Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government 2019–2020.

He won the 2017 Spinelli Prize, the 2011 Capalbio Prize for Europe, the 2009 Filippo Burzio Prize for the Political Sciences and the 2006 Amalfi European Prize for the Social Sciences.

He was member of the Steering Committee of the ECPR Standing Group on European Union.

He has published twenty books, two co-authored books and twenty edited or co-edited books or journal special issues, and several hundred scientific articles and essays in seven languages in the most important peer-reviewed international journals, in the fields of Comparative politics, European Union institutions and politics, US politics and political theory.

His most recent publications in English include

Europe’s Future: Decoupling and Reforming
Cambridge University Press, 2019

Europe’s Future: Decoupling and Reforming by Sergio Fabbrini

Sergio is also political editor for the Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore and currently Special Advisor to Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni on EU governance issues.

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