ROME – The European Union stumbled upon a Covid-19 vaccine rollout in late March that was fraught with bottlenecks and logistical issues when Mario Draghi took matters into his own hands. The new Italian Prime Minister confiscated a shipment of vaccines for Australia – an opportunity to show that a new, aggressive and powerful force had arrived in the European bloc.
The move rocked a Brussels tour that seemed to be sleeping at the counter. Within a few weeks, partly due to its pressure and technical developments behind the scenes, the European Union had approved even more comprehensive and stringent measures to curb the export of Covid-19 vaccines that are badly needed in Europe. The Australia Experiment, as officials in Brussels and Italy call it, marked a turning point for both Europe and Italy.
It also showed that Mr Draghi, known as the former President of the European Central Bank who helped save the euro, was ready to lead Europe from behind, where Italy has been for years and lags behind its European partners in terms of economic dynamism and Reforms are urgently needed.
In his brief tenure – he took power in February after a political crisis – Mr Draghi has quickly used his European relations, his ability to navigate EU institutions and his almost messianic reputation to turn Italy into something of an actor Making the continent hasn’t been around for decades.
After his friend Chancellor Angela Merkel resigned from office in September, President Emmanuel Macron from France faces tough elections next year and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to demonstrate competence, Draghi is ready to fill a leadership vacuum Europe.
Increasingly, he seems to speak for the whole of Europe.
“The difference is that when Mario Draghi speaks, everyone knows that he is not only pushing, arousing Italian interest,” said Vincenzo Amendola, the Italian minister for European affairs of the European Union, in an interview.
Knowing that Mr. Draghi has derived his influence from his international reputation, Mr. Amendola said that given the potential leadership gap in Europe, “you need stable leaders who bring trust”.
At home, Mr Draghi’s vaccination game in March provided political red meat to an Italian population hungry for vaccines and a sense of freedom of choice, but it was supposed to improve the leverage of Europe as a whole.
Abroad, his first stop in Libya sought to restore dwindling Italian influence in the troubled former Italian colony, which is vital to Italy’s energy needs and efforts to curb illegal migration from Africa. He also did not shy away from fighting with Turkey’s autocratic leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “With these dictators – let’s call them what they are – you have to be open about expressing your diversity of views and visions of society,” said Draghi.
But within the European Union, Mr Draghi has shown that Italy is now above its weight.
Last week, Mr Draghi, who is alternately funny and shaky but always direct, kept the pressure on Brussels when it came to vaccine exports. In the original contract negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies, he referred to “light” efforts and stated that the European Union had not yet acted despite its new strict rules on export bans.
But he also cleverly balanced his criticism of Frau von der Leyen’s commission by defending it after Mr Erdogan denied her a chair instead of a sofa during a visit to Turkey last week, saying he regretted the humiliation very much.
Making his debut at a European meeting as Italian Prime Minister in February, 73-year-old Draghi made it clear he wasn’t there to cheer. He said at an economic summit that was attended by batsmen like his successor to the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, to “curb their excitement” when it came to talking about closer fiscal union.
April 15, 2021, 6:18 p.m. ET
This type of association is Mr. Draghi’s long-term ambition. But before he can tackle the near or far-reaching economic problems at home, those around him realize that his priority must be to resolve Europe’s response to the pandemic.
Italian officials said his distance from the contract negotiations, which were concluded before he took office, gave him freedom of action. He suggested that AstraZeneca misled the bloc about supplying vaccines and sold Europe the same doses two or three times, and he immediately launched an export ban.
“He understood immediately that it was about vaccinations and supplies,” said Lia Quartapelle, a foreign affairs representative for the Italian Democratic Party.
On February 25, he participated in a video conference of the European Council with Ms. von der Leyen and other leaders of the European Union. The heads of state greeted him warmly. “We owe you so much,” the Bulgarian Prime Minister told him.
Afterwards, Ms. von der Leyen gave an optimistic presentation about the introduction of vaccines in Europe. But the new member of the club bluntly told Ms. von der Leyen that he found her vaccination prognosis “hardly reassuring” and did not know whether the numbers promised by AstraZeneca can be trusted, an official gift at the meeting.
He begged Brussels to get harder and drive faster.
Ms. Merkel checked together with him Ms. von der Leyen’s numbers, which pushed the Commission President, a former German defense minister, into the background. Mr Macron, who had campaigned for Mrs von der Leyen to be nominated but had quickly entered into a strategic alliance with Mr Draghi, continued to pile up. He called on Brussels, which negotiated vaccination contracts on behalf of its members, to “put pressure on companies that do not comply”.
At the time, Frau von der Leyen was being criticized less and less in Germany for her perceived weakness on the vaccine issue, although her own commissioners argued that an overly aggressive response with a vaccine export ban could harm the bloc in the future.
Mr Draghi, speaking face to face during the February meeting, tightened the screws. So did Mr. Macron, who emerged as his partner – the two are referred to by the Germans as “Dracon” – pushed for a more muscular Europe.
Behind the scenes, Mr Draghi complemented his more public hard line with an advertising campaign. The Italian, who is known to call European executives and pharmaceutical directors privately on their cell phones, turned to Ms. von der Leyen.
Of all the players in Europe, he knew her the least well, according to the European Commission and Italian officials, and he wanted to remedy the situation and make sure she didn’t feel isolated.
Then, in early March, when AstraZeneca’s shortage of Covid vaccine further disrupted its rollout in Europe, adding to public frustration and political pressure, Mr Draghi found the perfect gift for Ms. von der Leyen: 250,000 doses of confiscated AstraZeneca vaccine for Australia .
“He told me that he had phoned von der Leyen a lot in the days before,” said Ms. Quartapelle, who spoke to Mr. Draghi the day after the program was frozen. “He worked a lot with von der Leyen to convince them.”
According to Commission officials, the move was appreciated in Brussels as it exonerated Ms. von der Leyen and gave her political cover, while at the same time giving the impression that it was difficult to sign.
The episode has become a clear example of how Mr Draghi is building relationships that have the potential to generate great profits not just for himself and Italy, but for the whole of Europe.
On March 25, when the Commission suspected 29 million AstraZeneca cans in a warehouse outside Rome, Ms. von der Leyen called Mr. Draghi for help, officials said with knowledge of the calls. He was obliged and the police were dispatched quickly.
In the meantime, Mr Draghi and Mr Macron, along with Spain and others, continued to support a tougher line by the Commission on vaccine exports. The Netherlands were against it, and Germany, with a vibrant pharmaceutical market, was queasy.
When the European heads of state and government met again on March 25 at a video conference, Ms. von der Leyen was more confident about the political and pragmatic benefits of stopping exports of Covid vaccines made in the European Union. She re-presented slides, this time approving a broader six-week restriction on exports from the bloc, and Mr Draghi stepped down into a support role.
“Let me thank you for a job,” he said.
After the meeting, Mr Draghi gave Italy – and in a broader sense himself – appreciation for the steps that made export bans possible. “This is more or less the discussion that has been going on,” he told reporters, “because that was the topic that we originally raised.”