Italy will begin easing its coronavirus lockdown on Monday in what is considered to be Mario Draghi's first significant gamble since taking office as prime minister in February.
More than half of Italy’s 20 regions will be in the more lenient “yellow zone” category of restrictions even though the country is still recording thousands of new infections each day and a stubbornly high Covid-19 death toll.
Mr Draghi has come under pressure from the parties within his broad coalition, particularly Matteo Salvini’s far-right League, to lift lockdown measures.
The former European Central Bank chief is also in a race against time to submit a plan for reviving Italy's beleaguered economy as the country prepares to receive €191.5 billion from the EU's post-Covid-19 recovery fund.
In yellow zone regions, shops will reopen, as will cinemas and theatres, while bars and restaurants can serve customers at outside tables. People can move freely between the 14 regions and will need to present evidence of having had a Covid-19 vaccine or tested negative for the virus in order to travel to five regions in the stricter orange zone or to Sardinia, the only region remaining in the toughest red zone.
"Draghi said that opening up was a calculated risk but it is more of a gamble as the data is not at all reassuring," said Sofia Ventura, a politics professor at the University of Bologna.
Virologists and scientists advising the government have voiced concern about easing restrictions too soon. Italy registered almost 14,000 new infections on Saturday and 322 deaths, bringing the death toll to more than 119,000, the second-biggest in Europe and one of the highest in the world.
"This is probably Draghi's biggest bet so far," said Francesco Grillo, a political economist and director of the thinktank Vision. "Quite a few virologists think infections might rise again and so there could be a risk that [reopening] backfires."
Nicknamed “Super Mario” for his role in saving the European single currency, expectations were high when Mr Draghi was appointed prime minister in mid-February, with many Italians counting on him to work miracles overnight. But a slow and chaotic vaccination programme, at least during the first weeks of his leadership, and insufficient financial support for businesses hit hard by the pandemic, has led his popularity in opinion polls to diminish.
“Draghi is Super Mario but he’s not Harry Potter,” said Mr Grillo. “It’s an illusion to think he has a magic button to solve all the problems of a country which has been in decline for 30 years, and he has less than two years in which to do it.”
Mr Draghi's key mission is Italy's economic recovery, a plan for which will be presented to parliament on Monday before being submitted to the European Commission by April 30th. The plan envisages speeding up Italy's digital and green transformation, as well as investments in education and workforce training, infrastructure, social inclusion and health.
However, the EU money will not be raining down on Italy. The cash will come in tranches, but only when the government reaches the performance targets negotiated with the commission.
A significant portion of the funding comes through cheap loans that will need to be repaid over many years, adding to Italy’s already huge public debt. “This money is not like the [post-second world war] Marshal fund,” said Mr Grillo. “It will need to produce results.”
While Mr Draghi’s plan is expected to win EU approval, its execution over the long term will be left in the hands of whoever comes to power in the next general election in 2023.
“Draghi is a very strong figure and much respected at the European level, but the size and greatness of this guy is highlighted by the absolute weakness of the Italian political parties,” added Mr Grillo.
Ms Ventura said Mr Draghi may have overestimated his capacity to keep Italy's fractious parties under control. The Five Star Movement and the Democratic party – the two largest parties in parliament – along with the League, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, Italia Viva, a centrist group led by the former prime minister Matteo Renzi, and the left-wing Free and Equal all flocked to join Mr Draghi's alliance. The only party that did not was the far-right Brothers of Italy, led by the increasingly popular Giorgia Meloni.
“It’s a big challenge for Draghi as the individual parties themselves are in turmoil,” said Ms Ventura. “So, with elections in 2023, this means they’ll be more interested in protecting themselves than in resolving the problems of the pandemic and its impact.” – Guardian