EXPLAINED: When will Italy get a new government?

Italy has now been without a fully functioning government for more than three weeks. As talks resume, is there an end in sight for the latest political crisis?

EXPLAINED: When will Italy get a new government?
Italy's lower house of parliament in Rome. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

These are crucial days in Italian politics, as the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, works to form a new coalition to replace the one that collapsed last month. 

With Draghi expected to be officially delcared prime minister in the coming days, here's a guide to how we got here and how long until the country has a functioning government again.

What has happened so far?

Very briefly, a junior coalition partner pulled out of Italy's previous government due to disagreements over Covid-19 recovery plans, leaving Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte without a majority. He resigned in hopes of putting together a new coalition and returning at its head.

That didn't happen, and after several days of failed talks President Sergio Mattarella – who as head of state is refereeing the negotiations – called time and summoned former head banker Mario Draghi to form a new government.

PROFILE: Can 'Super Mario' Draghi lead Italy out of its crisis?

Mario Draghi. Photo: Alessandro Tarrantino/Pool/AFP

But that didn't mean Draghi automatically became prime minister. He needed to get the agreement of a majority of lawmakers, and after nine days of negotiating with Italy's various political parties, he seems to have won their overwhelming approval.

During these talks, each party would have presented him with a list of their priorities and pushed to get them included on his policy agenda.

EXPLAINED: How are Italy's prime ministers chosen?

He had already gained support from most of Italy's larger parties after first round of  talks concluded on Saturday He had tentative backing from the centre-left Democratic Party and Italia Viva – as well as its opponents on the right, the League and Forza Italia. Only the Brothers of Italy, a far-right ally of the League, ruled out joining. 

But it took until Thursday night for Draghi to get the approval of the populist Five Star Movement, who have around a third of seats in parliament.

With M5S on board, Draghi can now begin forming a government.

The talks later in the week focused on who takes which cabinet seat. Most prominent politicians are calling for a “political government”, i.e. one not entirely composed of technocrats, and will be jostling for key portfolios.

It's not yet known which cabinet seats, but speculation is rife in the Italian media as Draghi enters the final stages of forming the government on Friday.

What happens next?

Draghi could visit President Sergio Mattarella as early as Friday evening or over the weekend to be officially named prime minister.

Draghi will need to provide an outline for a new government. That would be followed by a vote of confidence first in the upper and then the lower house of parliament, possibly next week.

READ ALSO: Why do Italy's government's collapse so often?

That timeline is optimistic, however, and delays are likely. If there are any serious hold-ups, Mattarella has the option of installing Draghi as the head of a transitional government until it's safe to hold new elections. 

In this case a new cabinet could take office swiftly, but they would be caretakers tasked with managing Italy's most pressing matters rather than taking any big decisions for the future. 

For now, all signs point towards Draghi being successfully named prime minister by this weekend.

Empty seats in the Italian senate. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

What will the new government need to do first?

Aside from the fact that it's generally a good idea to have a working government, Italy is hurtling towards some important deadlines.

Its current emergency decree, which sets out the nationwide coronavirus restrictions, expires on March 5th, which means that someone needs to work on a review.

READ ALSO: Italy to start vaccinating over-55s and key workers this month under updated plan

Plus there's Italy's vaccination campaign to manage, which is in the process of being rolled out to millions of extra people over the coming weeks.

And emergency protections for workers, including a freeze on lay-offs, are due to expire in March.

Further down the line, Italy has to submit its economic recovery plan to Brussels by the end of April in order to qualify for emergency funding from the European Union, or risk missing out on some €220 billion. That means getting a draft through parliament before then, which proved an impossible task for the last government.

Draghi will have to balance demands for immediate relief against the need for long-term structural reforms in Italy – tensions that brought down the last government.

Meanwhile unemployment – at 426,000 higher than one year ago – risks rising further later this year, if an existing freeze on job dismissals is not extended.

READ ALSO: Italy to start vaccinating over-55s and key workers this month under updated plan

Another priority is speeding up Italy's coronavirus vaccination programme, which made a promising start in December but has since slowed, against a backdrop of rising concern about the spread of new variants.

Beyond that, Draghi has ambitions to reform Italy's public administration, tax and justice systems while strengthening relations with Europe and investing in schools and job creation, according to small parties who spoke to him on Monday.

Who's in charge at the moment?

Italy's outgoing cabinet remains in place to oversee day-to-day matters, including the Covid-19 response and vaccination campaign.

But parliament remains on stand-by, with lawmakers last in session on January 26th.

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EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”