ROME — Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, appealed on Wednesday for unity and sacrifice as the country pushes forward with vaccinations and seeks to seize on a $240 billion European relief package to overhaul the economy and address persistent inequalities.
In his first speech as head of government, Mr. Draghi addressed the Italian Senate for an hour through a white mask before a confidence vote for a broad unity government that he is assured to win. A former European Central Bank chief, he sounded every bit the bank president delivering an economic outlook, and said his government had “the possibility, or rather the responsibility, to begin a new reconstruction” after the traumatic blow of the pandemic.
He articulated Italy’s existential challenges, which he called the most severe since World War II. But he also laid out a vision for ambitious fiscal and bureaucratic overhauls and reasserted the country’s commitment to playing a central role in a more integrated European Union.
In a speech largely devoid of politics, he offered one sharp brushback to the populist forces in his government after one of their leaders raised doubts about Italy’s commitment to remaining in the eurozone. In the past decade, Italy’s populists rose in popularity in part by questioning whether the country benefited from the single European currency or would be better off without the economic constraints that come with it.
“Supporting this government means endorsing the irreversibility of the choice of the euro,” Mr. Draghi said, a clear response to Matteo Salvini, the leader of the nationalist League party, who said on Tuesday that only death was “irreversible.”
The new prime minister said that supporting his government meant “sharing the perspective of an ever-closer European Union” as he sat beside a cabinet member from Mr. Salvini’s party, which has accused the European Union of meddling in Italy’s affairs.
Mr. Draghi paid his respects to his predecessor, Giuseppe Conte, whose government fell last month. The mention of Mr. Conte’s name prompted both applause and jeers and Mr. Draghi quickly moved on and made clear that Italy was now on a new path.
He reasserted the country’s support for its Western allies in NATO, a reversal from previous governments that flirted with more authoritarian leaders. He also called for closer collaboration with Germany and France, criticized human rights abuses in Russia and spoke about tensions surrounding China.
Whereas the previous government came under criticism for what some considered a frivolous vision of flower-shaped pavilions as coronavirus vaccination sites, Mr. Draghi said inoculations needed to take place quickly and efficiently in every available public and private space, as any hope for easing Italy’s economic pain and guaranteeing the country’s recovery and future depended on first defeating the virus.
“The virus is everyone’s enemy,” he said.
More than anything, his speech called for action in a pivotal year for the country, especially as an end-of-April deadline looms for presenting a plan to the European Union on how Italy intends to spend the more than 200 billion euros — about $240 billion — in Covid relief funds that the bloc has agreed to allot.
A proponent of what he has called “good debt,” Mr. Draghi emphasized the importance of investing that money in sectors that will move the country forward. He spoke of narrowing economic inequalities through investment in education and ambitious public work projects such as high-speed rail. He also envisioned new jobs, especially in Italy’s economically disadvantaged south.
“This is our mission as Italians: deliver a better and fairer country to our children and grandchildren,” said Mr. Draghi, 73, asking whether his generation was willing to undertake the sacrifices that “our grandparents and parents did for us.”
Mr. Draghi’s acceptance of a globalized world and his vision for making Italy more competitive served as a blast of oxygen to pro-European Italians.
He called for overhauling the country’s tax code, bureaucracy and glacial judiciary, which often traps businesses in lawsuits and scares off foreign investors. As required by the European Union, he prioritized investments in digitalization, green jobs and renewable energy.
He also addressed some of the open wounds of the Italian economy and society. He said the country needed to improve prospects for talented young people who often pursue careers elsewhere and acknowledged that Italian women suffered “one of the worst pay gaps in Europe” and “chronic scarcity” in prominent managerial positions.
“Real gender equality does not mean a self-righteous respect of the quotas for women required by the law,” Mr. Draghi said, calling for a real equality in working conditions.
Now leading the country with the oldest population in Europe, he emphasized a need to improve social services for pregnant women and new mothers, saying it was vital for “overcoming the choice between family and work,” especially in the country’s beleaguered south.
At certain points Mr. Draghi left the figures and reform blueprints behind for some linguistic flourishes. But soaring oratory did not seem his strong suit, and attention in the chamber at times seemed to drift as lawmakers murmured.
Mr. Draghi’s power, however, is not in his charisma. It is in his reputation for competence and getting things done.
He ultimately needs Parliament’s backing to do that, and he rallied some of that support on Wednesday when he said he didn’t buy commentators’ assessment of his arrival on the scene as a technocrat’s rescue of a moribund political system. He said it was only the spirit of national unity and sacrifice of the country’s elected lawmakers that could help Italy.
“Today, unity is not an option — unity is a duty,” Mr. Draghi concluded, to a standing ovation. “But it’s a duty driven by what I am certain unites everyone: the love of Italy.”