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New PM Draghi to unveil plan to rescue Italy from virus crisis

  • The new premier has enough support without them but the rumblings highlight the fragility of his coalition.
17 Feb 2021

ROME: Italy's new Prime Minister Mario Draghi is due to unveil his rescue plan for the country on Wednesday, two weeks after he was called in to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

The former head of the European Central Bank (ECB), known as "Super Mario" for his role in saving the euro, was scheduled to address the Senate before submitting his government to a vote of confidence.

The lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, was due to hold its own vote on Thursday -- although there is little suspense, as he has the support of almost all the main political parties.

Italy has high hopes of the 73-year-old economist, who has already gone down in history with a 2012 speech in which he pledged to do "whatever it takes" to shore up the European single currency.

In his new mission, Draghi needs equal determination.

He was sworn in on Saturday as Italy's 30th prime minister in 75 years of republican history, ending a month-long political crisis that played out in the middle of a raging coronavirus pandemic.

The country's death toll is approaching 100,000, and there is rising concern about a new surge in cases brought about by the spread of British, Brazilian and South African variants.

Meanwhile, the economy shrank by almost nine per cent last year, one of the worst results in the eurozone, and close to 450,000 people lost their jobs -- mostly women and young people.

In a short acceptance speech on February 3, after President Sergio Mattarella asked him to form a government, Draghi called for national unity in the face of a "difficult moment".

Long-awaited overhaul

He listed as his immediate priorities "defeating the pandemic, completing the vaccination campaign and relaunching the country" with the "extraordinary resources" offered by the European Union.

Italy expects to receive more than 200 billion euros ($240 billion) from the EU's post-coronavirus recovery fund, but in return, it is expected to commit to potentially difficult or unpopular reforms.

The Senate speech will give Draghi the chance to finally unveil his agenda for the country, after weeks in which he hardly spoke in public, working mostly behind the scenes.

"[It] will be the first time in which we will reasonably have the chance to listen to Draghi for more than two minutes," political analyst and media expert Lorenzo Pregliasco told AFP.

Speeding up vaccinations, protecting businesses and workers and revamping an economy that struggled even before the pandemic struck are obvious priorities for Italy's new leader.

He is also expected to promise long-awaited overhauls of Italy's stifling bureaucracy, labyrinthine tax code and snail-paced justice system, and fresh investment in its underperforming schools and universities.

The premier can also count on near-universal support in parliament, stretching from leftists to the hard-right League of Matteo Salvini, and extending to the formerly anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

'Fragile political balance'

But tensions have already emerged within the coalition, notably over the government's decision Sunday to extend the closure of ski resorts just hours before they were due to reopen.

Salvini sharply criticised the decision, calling for billions of euros of reparations for affected businesses.

Meanwhile the M5S, which led the previous two governments under Giuseppe Conte, remains split over the decision to follow Draghi and dozens of M5S lawmakers have threatened to vote against him.

The new premier has enough support without them but the rumblings highlight the fragility of his coalition.

"I don't believe the government will last until the end of the parliamentary term [in 2023]," Teresa Coratella, a Rome-based analyst from the European Council of Foreign Relations, told AFP.

"On one side we have a very strong government from the point of view of the technical expertise of its ministers; on the other, we have a very fragile political balance," she added.