A tale of two Italys

A furious row over competing projects - one to build a flood barrier for Venice, the other to constr

When it comes to grand infrastructure projects, Italy rarely seems in a hurry. In the north, a plan to save Venice by means of a gigantic, multi billion-euro flood barrier system has been under discussion for 30 years. In the south, a plan to link Sicily to the Italian mainland by means of a gigantic, multibillion-euro suspension bridge has been under discussion for even longer.

Now, at long last, there is movement in both cases: it appears that the flood barrier system will be built, and the bridge won't. Why that should be so is a tale that offers insights into several aspects of modern Italy - the relationship between the central government in Rome and the outlying regions, the environmentalist movement, organised crime, the shaky public finances, and the contempt in which left and right hold each other.

The two projects were championed by the centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi, who was prime minister from June 2001 to May 2006. They were the centrepieces of a charac teristically ambitious ?125.8bn (£85.5bn) programme to which Berlusconi committed his government, and which aimed to modernise Italy's crumbling infrastructure. The problem is real: Italy's expenditure on infrastructure, especially road and railway networks, has fallen far behind the western European average over the past 25 years. Yet it was never entirely clear where Berlusconi was going to get the money from. Italy's public debt, which is close to ?1.8trn and the world's third-highest in absolute terms, is larger than the nation's annual economic output. Funds for stupendous public investment schemes are stretched, to say the least.

All this emerged when Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition came to power a month after defeating Berlusconi in last April's general election. Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, Prodi's finance minister, told Italians that the cost of Berlusconi's projects had boomed to ?173.4bn (£118bn), but that the government had only ?58.4bn (£40bn) available. Hard choices were necessary; some projects would have to be ditched.

One could have been the Venice flood barrier system, otherwise known as Moses (the name conjures up biblical images of the parting of the Red Sea, but stands in Italian, more prosaically, for "experimental electromechanical module"). Massimo Cacciari, the mayor of Venice, disliked Moses. So did Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, leader of the country's Green Party and Prodi's new environment minister.

Various non-Italian conservation groups, not to mention many ordinary Venetians, were no more enthusiastic about Moses. On 2 February, four members of the European Parliament arrived in Venice to complain that Moses was "disastrous" and had "tremendous economic and environmental costs".

Yet Venice is a wonder of civilisation. Its artistic and architectural treasures are priceless. Some 60,000 people visit it every day. To the rest of the world, Venice defines something quintessentially Italian, even something magnificent and melancholy about mankind in general. It is irreplaceable. Moreover, the city's survival is genuinely threatened. Water levels have slowly gone up since the 1700s and there are even fears that, towards the end of this century, Venice may sink because of the rising Adriatic Sea. Some risks may be linked to global warming, some to the accumulation of silt in the Venetian lagoon, and some to the extraction of methane gas from the nearby sea. Whatever the causes, St Mark's Square, the lowest point in the city, already gets flooded dozens of times a year.

To prevent a catastrophe, Moses envisages the installation of 79 steel barriers, 20 metres wide and up to 28 metres high, that will be fixed to the seabed and rise up to seal Venice's lagoon from the Adriatic when high tides are forecast. If all goes smoothly, the barriers will be operational by 2011 or 2012.

The Prodi government, concluding that action was needed, undertook a brisk review of Moses and announced last November that it would go ahead. The decision was relatively easy to take, in the sense that preliminary work on the barriers had already begun three years earlier.

Yet there were other considerations, too. It helped that, unlike the Sicilian bridge plan, Moses was not tainted by the actual or suspected involvement of the Mafia. Prodi also felt a need to make clear, to environmentalists and to the many irksome local authorities which regularly obstruct central government proposals, that he would not back down on an issue where he deemed the national interest to be at stake.

Finally, although Berlusconi had identified his government with Moses and had personally visited Venice in May 2003 to inaugurate the project, it was never a specifically centre-right initiative. To proceed with Moses gave the lie to the oft-heard accusation from Berlusconi and his supporters that the centre left lacked vision and automatically said "no" to big infrastructure projects. Moses may cost at least ?4.3bn (£3bn), but in the final analysis Prodi's government considers it money well spent.

By contrast, it was clear from the moment of Prodi's election victory that the Sicilian bridge was doomed. Scarcely had Alessandro Bianchi been appointed Prodi's transport minister than he called the bridge "the most useless and damaging project in Italy of the past hundred years".

Such strong language is explained by the bitterness of Italian political rivalries - as well as the inescapable presence of the Mafia in Sicilian life. Berlusconi and the centre right swept Sicily in the 2001 general election, winning all 61 of its parliamentary seats. In last year's election, when Italy switched to a proportional representation system, Berlusconi's coalition thumped Prodi's alliance by 57.9 per cent to 41.9 per cent in Sicily. However, the Italian south as a whole voted for Prodi. What made Sicily different?

According to Antonio Giuffrè, a Cosa Nostra boss who co-operated with Italian prosecutors after his arrest in 2002, the main reason why Berlusconi has done well in Sicilian elections is that the Mafia decided, after the collapse of the locally dominant Christian Democrats in the early 1990s, to throw its weight behind his Forza Italia party. Votes would be traded for favours.

Passionate support

Forza Italia dismisses such allegations as rubbish, and certainly there is no proof of a formal arrangement involving Cosa Nostra. One should also remember that the testimony of Mafia bosses is often self-serving and unreliable. Be that as it may, three facts stand out.

First, Berlusconi and his centre-right allies were the bridge's most passionate supporters. It was during Berlusconi's premiership that the project took a big step forward when an Italian-led consortium won a ?3.88bn (£2.64bn) contract in October 2005 to build it.

Second, Salvatore Cuffaro, president of Sicily's regional government, who is also a big supporter of the bridge, was sent for trial in November 2004 for alleged collusion with the Mafia. Cuffaro, who maintains his innocence, belongs to Berlusconi's centre-right coalition. In spite of his court case, he was re-elected last May.

Last, anti-Mafia investigators in Italy and abroad thwarted an attempt by the Mafia to muscle in on contracts tied to the bridge when, in February 2005, they arrested a construction engineer in Rome and three other people in Canada, France and the UK. The arrests underlined how vulnerable such an expensive public works project is to Mafia penetration.

There were other dangers as well. The Strait of Messina, which separates Reggio Calabria on the Italian mainland from the Sicilian town of Messina, is where Homer imagined Odysseus and his men sailing between the monstrous duo of Scylla and Charybdis. It is an earthquake-prone area where a tremor killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people in 1908.

Stretto di Messina, the Italian company running the project, says that the bridge, which would have a central span of 3.3 kilometres, making it the world's longest suspension bridge, could withstand a quake of 7.1 on the Richter scale - a threshold roughly as high as the 1908 tremor. Not all geologists are convinced, however. Some fret that the bridge would not, in any case, survive Sicily's slow but irreversible drift away from the mainland.

A final argument against building the bridge was that it would not be used enough to be profitable. Designers thought it should be able to handle 6,000 vehicles an hour and 200 trains a day; at present, about 9,000 vehicles cross the strait by ferry every day. Many businessmen and travellers hate the journey, partly because of long ferry queues but also because of poor road and rail connections from Messina to the rest of Sicily, and from Reggio Calabria to other parts of the Italian south. It is these connections that need substantial investment; the bridge, if ever it is to be built, can come later.

So, at least, argued the Prodi government as it slammed the door shut on the bridge project. The centre right was outraged. "It took us five years to put this together, and it took the left five minutes to destroy it," Berlusconi complained earlier this month.

However, not for the first time, Prodi may have been more in tune with the public. The Sicilian regional government launched an online poll last month to see if people wanted the bridge. It confidently expected the answer to be "yes", but in the first few days of voting, 55 per cent said "no".

So there it is: Venice gets its flood barriers, Sicily doesn't get its bridge. But only a rash person predicts anything with confidence in Italy. Prodi's government is hanging by a thread, with the narrowest of parliamentary majorities. If he falls, Berlusconi, and Sicily's bridge, could make a comeback. Equally, opposition to the Venice flood barriers could resurface.

In the end, this is the fascination, and frustration, of Italy. Arguing about something is refined into an art form. As for taking a final decision - why, that just spoils the fun.

Tony Barber is Rome correspondent of the FT

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

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The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.

***

Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.

***

What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.

***

Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt