In ancient times the senators of Rome begged Cincinnatus to come out of retirement and save the republic. His mission accomplished, he returned to his farm, becoming a revered symbol of selfless virtue for centuries to come.
Like Cincinnatus, Mario Draghi was called upon to be the saviour of Italy at a moment of national peril during the pandemic almost 18 months ago. As prime minister he, too, rose to the occasion. But his reward is to lose the reins of power just when new, even graver emergencies are unfolding in Italy and around Europe.
Many Italians can barely contain their despair at the machinations of the professional politicians that have contributed to their hero’s exit. “And now there is nothing left to us but to cry: poor Italy, poor us,” tweeted one admirer of Draghi.
Yet from the beginning of the national unity government in February 2021, everyone in Italian politics understood the 74-year-old premier’s administration would be a temporary arrangement. The latest cut-off point was always going to be the next parliamentary elections, due by June 1 2023.
To the dismay of Italy’s Nato and EU allies, for whom Draghi’s words and actions carried more authority than those of almost all post-1945 Italian premiers, the end has come far too soon. For them, Russia’s war in Ukraine, the European energy crisis, inflation and the delicate task of managing Italy’s public finances at a time of rising pressure in bond markets made Draghi the ideal man for the moment.
It is not quite accurate, however, to suggest that Italy is now in rudderless chaos. Even if Sergio Mattarella, the head of state, decides it is necessary to hold snap elections in September or October, there is no reason why Italy’s parliament — given the necessary political will — cannot pass next year’s budget before the end of December, as is normal practice.
It may be more difficult for any new government to implement the measures required to ensure that EU post-pandemic recovery funds continue to flow to Italy. Draghi said on Wednesday that Italy needed to meet 55 economic and administrative reform targets before the end of this year in order to receive the next EU tranche, worth €19bn, in full.
Throughout the Draghi era, however, the question at the heart of Italian politics was always how to maintain the reform effort that he personified once the man himself left the public stage. This question now arises earlier than most people outside the political classes wanted — but it never went away.
Opinion polls consistently indicate that the most likely victor of the next elections — whenever they are held — will be a rightwing coalition comprising the Brothers of Italy, the League and Forza Italia.
Even leaving aside the important and still unanswered question of who would lead this coalition, there are reasons to doubt whether it would pursue a reform programme with Draghi’s skill and conviction. The League, for example, has opposed pro-competition measures relating to taxi licences and seaside concessions.
It may, then, turn out that the sense of crisis becomes so acute that, at some point in the future, Italy calls on yet another respected non-partisan figure to help it through its troubles. More than 2,000 years on, the spirit of Cincinnatus lives on in the peninsula.