Italian politician Salvini blasts EU after bridge disaster

Bloomberg, Reuters, AFP-JIJI

The populists setting the agenda in Italy’s coalition government have seized on the collapse of a bridge in the north to question whether they should respect European Union budget constraints.

The collapse came as the bridge was undergoing maintenance work on Tuesday and as the Liguria region, where Genoa is situated, experienced torrential rainfall.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Wednesday vowed that those responsible would “pay — pay everything, and pay dearly.”

The incident — the deadliest of its kind in Europe since 2001 — is the latest in a string of bridge collapses in Italy, a country prone to damage from seismic activity but where infrastructure generally is showing the effects of a faltering economy.

Transport minister Danilo Toninelli meanwhile said Wednesday that the government should revoke the contract given to the company that manages the country’s highways, Autostrade per l’Italia, and slap it with a huge fine.

“I have gone over this bridge hundreds of times, and I commit to digging and finding out who is responsible for an unacceptable tragedy, because it’s not possible that in 2018 you can work and die in these conditions,” he said.

Salvini, of the euroskeptic League, told reporters in Catania, Sicily, that the failure of the roughly 50-year-old suspension bridge shows how important it is to increase investment spending. He hinted that EU spending limits could put lives at risk.

“If external constraints prevent us from spending to have safe roads and schools, then it really calls into question whether it makes sense to follow these rules,” said Salvini. “There can be no trade-off between fiscal rules and the safety of Italians.”

At least 35 people were killed, police said Wednesday, when a section of the 1,100-meter (3,600-foot) viaduct gave way following heavy rain around midday. The road was built in the 1960s and sits on thin pylons as it crosses a river, railroad tracks and buildings carrying traffic through the heart of Genoa.

A 50-meter-high section of the Morandi Bridge, including a tower that anchored several stays, crashed down while as many as 35 vehicles were driving on it. Huge slabs of reinforced concrete plunged onto two warehouses, train tracks and a riverbed.

The tragedy comes as Italy’s anti-establishment coalition is preparing its 2019 budget, with Salvini and his populist ally, Luigi di Maio of the Five Star Movement, already demanding the EU bend its rules on deficit targets to allow them to boost spending and cut taxes. Previous Italian governments have long pressed for certain types of investment to be excluded from EU calculations.

Salvini’s allies picked up the baton, with Toninelli pledging to reverse the shortfall in maintenance and Claudio Borghi, head of the budget committee in the lower house of parliament, complaining about years of spending restrictions.

“The safety of the Italians must come first,” he said on Twitter.

Less than three months after taking power, the populist coalition is still enjoying a honeymoon period with voters, and Salvini’s League in particular has surged in the polls. That will enable them to score political points by targeting bureaucrats in Brussels, said Francesco Galietti, founder of political consultancy Policy Sonar.

“The clear lack of maintenance on this bridge is some one else’s legacy,” he said. “But it could make it easier to push Brussels to accept more public investment.”

Concerns that Five Star’s planned citizens’ income and the League’s flat tax will widen Italy’s budget deficit, combined with contagion from Turkey’s currency crisis, sent the spread between Italian and German bond yields to the widest since early June on Monday, before recovering Tuesday.

Italy’s deficit this year is forecast to be 1.6 percent of economic output, well within the eurozone’s limit of 3 percent. But the commission has insisted on narrower deficits for Italy to reduce its debt of €2.3 trillion ($2.7 trillion), the largest in Europe.

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi from the center-left Democratic Party, who has clashed openly with Salvini and di Maio, criticized the deputy prime minister for playing politics, even as he acknowledged the concerns about the highways. “Maybe finally it is the time to discuss infrastructure, but without ideology,” he wrote on Twitter. “But today, please, is a day only for silence.”

In the coalition agreement presented in May, the League and Five Star said they would seek a deal with other EU members and the European Commission to exclude some investments from deficit calculations to allow for “consolidating economic growth and the country’s development.”

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, an academic roped in to arbitrate between Five Star and the League in government, said he was following the situation, but avoided making political comments. Di Maio made similar comments.

President Sergio Mattarella echoed Salvini’s demand for safety.

“Italians have a right to a modern and efficient infrastructure that they can safely rely on in their everyday lives,” he said in a statement. He said the public institutions and private operators companies that manage Italy’s infrastructure must be conscious of the need to prevent accidents and upgrade transport networks.

Shares in Atlantia SpA, which manages the stretch of highway, fell 5.4 percent to the lowest level since April 2017. The company said it is committed to rebuilding the bridge as quickly as possible and will cooperate with any inquiry.