The European Union pushed back against suggestions by Italian politicians that EU budget rules may endanger lives after the collapse of a decades-old bridge in northern Italy killed at least 39 people.
“We will not engage in any political finger pointing,” the European Commission, the EU’s executive in Brussels, said in a statement after Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini said the failure of the highway bridge in Genoa demonstrated the importance of increasing investments and hinted that EU spending limits could put lives at risk.
The Financial Times reports that Brussels has hit back at the claims from Matteo Salvini. “The European Commission said on Thursday that it was time “to make a few things clear” after Mr Salvini blamed Brussels for imposing “external constraints” on spending on “safe roads and schools”.
He was speaking in the immediate aftermath of the bridge collapse on Tuesday. “It really calls into question whether it makes sense to follow these rules,” said Mr Salvini, head of the League party, in reference to the EU rules that limit national debt and deficit levels. Countering Mr Salvini’s claims, a spokesman for the commission said it had pushed numerous Italian governments to spend more on investment projects, including its road network.
“For the record, under the agreed fiscal rules member states are free to set specific policy priorities, for instance the development and maintenance of infrastructure,” said the spokesman.
“The EU has encouraged investment in infrastructure in Italy. The 2018 country-specific recommendations adopted by the Council called on the Italian authorities to better target investments to foster infrastructural development”. Günther Oettinger, the EU’s German budgetary commissioner, wrote on Twitter that although it was “very human to look for somebody to blame when terrible accident happens”, it was “good to look at facts”. The commission pointed out that €2.5bn in EU development funds had been allocated to Italy specifically for public investment schemes from 2014 to 2020.
The bloc also signed off an €8.5bn investment for Italian motorways under its state aid rules in April, which includes the Genoa region. Brussels’ forthright reply to Mr Salvini’s accusations is a departure from usual public responses from the commission, which has been keen to avoid spats with Rome’s new Eurosceptic coalition. Mr Oettinger sparked outrage in Rome this year when he suggested amid speculation on a repeat election that the prospect of Italian market turmoil “will become so far-reaching that it might become a signal to voters after all to not vote for populists on the right and left”. (FT)
In the meantime, the New York Times reports that Big infrastructure projects here often meet fierce opposition from the local population, environmentalists, preservationists and politicians. In the case of Genoa, populists now in the national government had dismissed the highway plan as unnecessary and a formula for corruption.
“This is a general problem in Italy,” said Andrea Del Grosso, a professor emeritus in engineering at the University of Genoa. “It’s always hard to make decisions, so projects drag on for decades, costs inflate, and when they decide to do them, it’s usually too late.”
To transport goods out of Genoa’s harbor, the city also relies on railways. A new tunnel is under construction to increase connections between the city and northern Italy, and ultimately to Switzerland and France. But the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, now part of the government, harshly opposed the plan, fearing that it, like many other large infrastructure projects in Italy, might give rise to a major corruption scandal.
Now that project is going to stall, too. Its first stretch, the railway tracks that routinely move containers from the harbor, are under the tons of concrete blocks from the fallen bridge. (NYT)
In the meantime the Italian government has demanded that the company in control of the collapsed Genoa bridge rebuild it at the firm’s own expense. The transport ministry also says it wants Autostrade per l’Italia to complete the rebuild within limited amount of time and pay to restore buildings and other areas damaged by the collapse.
Autostrade – which says it made regular, thorough safety checks – has been given 15 days to show it met its contractual obligations.
The government has opened an investigation into the toll-road operator following the collapse, which killed at least 38 people.
The Independent says that it is “shameless even by their own low standards, the gang of populists currently trying to govern Italy have attempted to exploit the tragic collapse of the bridge at Genoa for political purposes. Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister, minister of the interior and leader of the Northern League party, wasted to no time in blaming the detested European Union for the loss of life. His argument was that the EU’s budgetary restraints on member states prevents them from carrying out expensive infrastructure projects.
It is, of course, wrong. All that the fiscal rules require is for member states of the single European currency to safeguard the euro’s integrity to sticking to broad limits on budget deficits and the overall level of national debt. No one in Europe has ever vetoed any scheme to make a bridge safe.
What in fact went wrong, among other factors, was that the planned improvement works to the bridge were bitterly opposed by Mr Salvini’s coalition partners, the Five Star Movement – it said warnings of the Morandi Bridge’s risk of collapse were a “favoletta” – a fairy tale of children’s fantasy. Five Star, true to its crude populist instincts, wanted to win political support from local residents who resented the disruption and change the works would create. It is what the British call “nimbyism”, but elevated into a political philosophy. Had the works gone ahead, there is at least the possibility that the tragedy would have been averted.
To blame the European Union for the bridge’s collapse while your populist allies tried to wreck the scheme takes special quality of chutzpah, or faccia tosta in Italian. Then again, it is a feature of the successful politician that they can distort the truth as they wish, while indignantly attacking those who seek to report real news – Donald Trump being the globally pre-eminent exponent of the art.