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Whatever It Really Takes

The new Italian PM is best placed to reset the European project back to where the saviourship for which he is known is no longer needed. He won’t do it, but he should....

Mario Draghi’s forming of a new Italian government is being cheered across the Eurocracy with a hero’s welcome. There would likely be no European Union (EU) to speak of had not the former European Central Bank (ECB) President massaged the Davoisie into giving the loss-of-confidence-stricken Eurozone one last chance in the wake of Greece’s 2012 bailout. But Draghi returns to a supranational project unrecognizably changed since his famous “whatever it takes” speech—just not in the way Eurocrats think it has.

The 1950s ideal of peaceful commerce through a single market and a multinational elite entre-soi was plagued with dead angles from the get-go, but the successive waves of accelerated global change since the late 1970s were for the EU a blessing in disguise. The boomer generation born into the economic bliss of the immediate postwar seized the chance, attempting to reinfuse Europe’s spent political imagination by delegating unchecked power to unaccountable managers and regulators. A European blend of competitiveness and solidarity, they hoped, would keep the continent globally relevant while shining a light in a changing, hostile world.

This may have solved the odd collective action problem on the margin, but the crises it has sown along the way far outweigh the smug self-satisfaction of Europe’s post-national elites, so an unstoppable reckoning is already on its way. Emmanuel Macron’s neo-Gaullist agenda of leveraging the geo-strategic mold laid out in the 1990s for a more self-confident, on-our-own-terms foreign policy is a sign of that looming awakening. But whilst a different sensibility of the EU establishment stays bent on more supranationalism and progressive shibboleths like the European Green Deal as a way to close the gaps of trust and democracy that those same policies have opened, Macron’s irrelevance will match De Gaulle’s. Worse still, the French President’s drumbeating for “strategic autonomy” is meanwhile being used as cover for geo-strategic debacles ranging from the ugly—the EU’s rushed investment accord with China—to the botched—Josep Borrell’s equally disgraceful nose-thumb at Alexei Navalny by visiting Servei Lavrov in Moscow a fortnight ago.

When the history of Europe’s failed Tower of Babel is written centuries from now, a bitter page will be reserved for Ursula von der Leyen’s inept, life-costing vaccine procurement debacle. The protegée of Europe’s real empress, Angela Merkel, was right to see in Covid-19 a make-or-break moment to launch the EU into the 21st century but she has instead thrust it back to a pre-technological age. Worse than killing Europeans by bureaucratic blunder, she has dealt with the fallout à la Nero, creating the perfect storm for Draghi to come in and clean house. The reason Ursula genuinely thinks the millions of Europeans who will die victims of her incompetence doesn’t call for her resignation is because Brussels lacks the countervailing powers to make the hard truths bite. That’s a feature of the EU, not a bug.

So if Draghi wants those same history books to remember him as the man who helped save Europe from itself, here’s a roadmap. As soon as the vaccine “glitch” is fixed and Italy has a workable plan to transparently distribute Covid-19 relief, reclaim the mantle of Europe’s last line of defense against chaos. Whether he persuades the Commission to resign and risks being Ursula’s political executioner by stepping on her corpse, or instead lays the groundwork for the same outcome by readying up a techno-populist campaign in the 2024 race to the European Parliament is a matter of detail. More of the same old Eurocratic kick-the-can-down-the-road playbook would this time amount to suicide, and Draghi knows it.

We can’t be sure how many more times the EU’s knack for marginal fixes will do the trick. But we don’t need several more million Covid-19 deaths to accept that an institutional reset is the only way to save the EU in the long-run. The reset in question would take a sledgehammer to the proto-federalist morass built by a stack of treaties that Eurocrats themselves can’t read and restores the locus of European cooperation where it belongs—at the intergovernmental level, with accountable governments collaborating on the basis of mutual interest. The supranational timebomb that’s ticking will otherwise rush us to a near-revolutionary context, with populism of a much nastier sort. Draghi is the only man with the vision and credentials to storm the cockpit and deprogram it from within. That’d would truly make him SuperMario, but it’s what it really takes.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid).