Rescuers are still searching under the rubble of a collapsed viaduct in the Italian city of Genoa to find any survivors, but a very Italian polemic has inevitably already started.
The tragedy struck on Tuesday, when a portion of the Morandi highway bridge collapsed in the middle of the day under torrential rain, causing the death of at least 39 people.
While authorities have begun investigating the incident as manslaughter and “culpable disaster,” interior minister Matteo Salvini was already framing the collapse in terms of EU shortcomings.
“Should there be any are European constraints that prevent us from spending money to secure the schools where our children go or the highways on which our workers travel — we will put in front of everything and everyone the security of the Italians” he told the press in a message shared on his social media platforms on Tuesday, ensuring maximum reach.
Salvini had also previously published a statement promising to find the culprits, “with names and surnames,” and make them “pay, pay everything and pay dearly” — perhaps naively thinking that only a handful of people could shoulder the blame for a calamity of such proportions in a country like Italy.
A very Italian case
Italy’s highway system is somewhat of an anomaly in Europe, both in terms of its ownership structure and its cost. Of the nearly 7,000 kilometres (4,350 miles) making up Italian highways, Autostrade per l’Italia, owned by the Atlantia holding company, which is in turn owned by the Benetton family — of fashion retailer fame — controls nearly half of it, including the Morandi bridge stretch. The Gavio group controls around 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) of the roads. Together, the two are responsible for about 70 per cent of the whole network, a situation that stifles competition and innovation and increases the cost of the service, as the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera noted in a recent investigation.
Italians pay more than any other country in Europe for the use of the highways. And what do they get for that money? The breaking down of the Morandi bridge is already the fifth deadly collapse of a highway viaduct in Italy in the past five years — albeit the bloodiest by far —and overall the tenth bridge collapse in that timeframe, Italian media have reported.
These statistics don’t take into account other deadly incidents on Italian infrastructures, such as the collisions of two trains in the region of Apulia in July 2016 that caused the deaths of 23 people and, as the president of the anti-corruption National Authority Raffaele Cantone said at the time, “was probably due to human error, but also stems from our country’s atavistic problem of fielding inadequate infrastructure and one of the reasons for that is down to corruption.”
The relatively high frequency of these incidents should finally give credibility to claims made by experts over the ailing state of the infrastructure and its underlying causes.
In the case of the 51-year-old Morandi bridge, there had been repeated warnings about the structure’s inadequacy. An Autostrade spokesperson told Reuters the bridge was “constantly monitored and supervised well beyond what the law required.” But according to experts, the maintenance level required by the bridge was a sign of its weakness, not strength. In a 2016 article for the specialist engineering website Ingegneri.info, University of Genoa professor Antonio Brencich highlighted several structural issues and predicted that, as the cost of rebuilding the bridge would soon become lower than maintenance costs, the infrastructure would soon have to be demolished.
Plans to create alternative infrastructure, the Gronda project, were already in place and funds from the EU were approved in April — what was lacking was political will.
In 2012, the president of Genoa’s branch of the General Confederation of Italian Industries, Giovanni Calvini, had expressed frustration at local politicians’ opposition to the project. “Look, when in ten years the Morandi bridge collapses, and we’ll all have to be stuck in traffic for hours, we’ll remember the names of those who have said ‘no’ now,” he told Il Secolo XIX newspaper.
The staunchest opponents of the Gronda project were members of the now ruling Five Star Movement (M5S), the populist party who formed a government coalition with Salvini’s Northern League in June. When the left-wing mayor of Genoa Marco Doria declared in 2016 that the project may no longer be needed, the local spokesperson for the M5S was triumphant: “The Gronda is a useless, dangerous and pointless project,” the statement read, “The M5S has been saying this for years.” It did — party founder Beppe Grillo, a Genoa native, was a supporter of the “No Gronda” movement, hosting on the M5S website a statement from the group describing the possibility of the Morandi bridge collapsing as a “fairytale.”
As recently as the beginning of August, the infrastructure and transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, a M5S politician, was calling for a review of the project that may have led to its abandonment.
Yet Salvini mentioned none of these points, serving a more palatable and combative soundbite that was picked up by media agencies across the globe.
In fact, those who don’t follow Italian politics closely could be forgiven for thinking the deputy prime minister is single-handedly running the country — whose government is actually led by prime minister and law professor Giuseppe Conte. In reporting about the bridge collapse, news agency Reuters mentioned in passing Conte’s statement about the casualties, while quoting directly Salvini’s statement on EU constraints.
Salvini, who served as a MEP between July 2014 and March 2018, is a staunch anti-EU politician who has often used the tactic of blaming Brussels for anything that doesn’t work in Italy. It’s one that his party has long been exercising — albeit in the past, it was the Italian capital who served as a scapegoat, under the slogan “Rome big thief” — knowing that the large part of the public is unaware of the minutiae of policy-making.
The far-right politician isn’t the only one using this strategy — Boris Johnson pulled a similar trick in his letter of resignation from foreign secretary, blaming his decision to support Brexit on EU directives preventing him from tackling the issue of cyclist deaths by “killer trucks” in London, an argument convincingly disproven by Bloomberg.
But as with Johnson’s argument, so, too, can Salvini’s be challenged. As a statement from the European Commission quoted in Euronews said, Italy has been one of the major beneficiaries of fiscal flexibility, allowing the country to spend more on infrastructure, an example of which was the April investment of €8.5bn towards projects such as the Gronda.
If anything, the problem with Italy is that the country does not allow for enough competition in its infrastructure market. In May 2017, the European Commission took Italy to the EU Court of Justice claiming the country had “breached EU law” by awarding an extension of a motorway concession contract without a prior call for tenders.
Perhaps sensing the mood of public opinion, the Italian government has ultimately decided to prioritise holding to account the number one suspect, the Autostrade operator, and Salvini, too, has condemned it in a tweet in Thursday. The government has vowed to end Autostrade’s concession. As the Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore observed in analysing the difficult, lengthy and complex process this would entail, this promise may also end up sounding as hollow as Salvini’s anti-EU statement.