Italy’s Morandi Bridge tragedy is a warning

Morandi Bridge in Genoa © Getty images
A grim metaphor for national decline

The Genoa bridge disaster holds lessons for the whole EU. Emily Hohler reports.

The collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, which has killed 43, is “a tragedy and a warning”, says The Times. Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister, interior minister and head of the right-wing Northern League party, promptly took to Twitter, promising to “identify those responsible” and subsequently blamed the European Union’s public spending caps for “hastening the disaster”. This idea is “fanciful”. In reality, Italy devotes more per capita to road maintenance than most EU members, including €2.5bn from Brussels for the 2014-20 period. “How much of that money is spent as intended is another matter.”

Attempting to exploit the tragedy for political ends is “shameless”, says The Independent. The EU’s fiscal rules simply require member states to stick to “broad limits on budget deficits and the overall level of national debt”. Indeed, an irony of the disaster is that planned improvements to the bridge were “bitterly opposed” by Salvini’s coalition partners, the Five Star Movement, who, eager to win the support of local residents hostile to bridge works, described warnings about the risk of collapse as a “favoletta” (a fairy tale).

The government had known about the bridge’s weaknesses for months, adds Hannah Roberts in the Financial Times. The private bridge operator, Autostrade, produced a study discussed by civil servants in February estimating that some of the bridge’s stays had lost 20% of their resistance capacity. Works were approved and a tender for €20m to carry out the repairs was advertised in May. However, despite the warnings, nothing was done to limit or stop traffic on the bridge.

Italy’s infrastructure is crumbling

Decaying infrastructure is a “scourge” to be found in “many of the world’s most advanced economies”, and the case for major investment is now “unanswerable”, says Tony Barber in the Financial Times. In Italy, a country whose post-Second World War building boom made its motorways the “envy of Europe”, the Morandi Bridge now stands as a “grim metaphor for national decline”.

As long ago as 2009, Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, then governor of Italy’s central bank, noted that the list of high-priority strategic infrastructure projects had “swollen to over 200” in the previous 20 years. Unless politicians across the West grasp the nettle, “the next catastrophic bridge collapse is only a matter of time”.

Italy’s populist government already has a plan, says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph. The disaster is being used to justify a “Marshall Plan” of up to €80bn for building works which would “smash EU budget rules”. Officials want to invoke Gordon Brown’s “Golden Rule” so as to “remove chunks of public investment from the headline budget deficit, a ruse that would make it easier for the Five Star-Lega coalition to open the floodgates of fiscal stimulus and reflate Italy’s stagnant economy”.

This would be a “high-risk gamble at a time when the rating agencies have their fingers on the downgrade trigger”. But if Salvini is “thwarted too openly”, he may capitalise on his popularity to call an election, which could lead to an even more eurosceptic government.


The showman of simple-mindedness is back

“The announcement that Nigel Farage is back, like a Home Counties Savile Row Terminator, has to be the most unsurprising news of the political year,” says Gawain Towler in The Daily Telegraph. He has been “publicly toying with the idea for months” and Theresa May’s Chequers agreement “made it inevitable”. Farage  wasn’t about to “sit back” and allow a “slick bunch of establishment cronies” destroy his “life’s work” by pushing through a “shadow Brexit”. His chosen vehicle to take up the cudgels is the cross-party Leave Means Leave (LML) campaign, rather than Leave.EU.

LML is “not typical Farage terrain”, says Hugo Rifkind in The Times. Numerous Tory MPs are listed as supporters and the roll is dominated by the likes of John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg who “fancy themselves as hard Brexit’s intellectual wing”. Will they continue to support LML once Farage is on the “battle bus”? It is their failure that he is back in this debate. They have had two years to move the hard Brexit argument on from Farage’s “tub-thumping simplicities” about the will of the people and to “make their case about WTO this and Global Britain that”. “Shame on them” for not leaving him “far, far behind”.

Farage’s efforts could backfire, says Matthew d’Ancona in The Guardian. By restarting the Brexit campaign – as he put it on Sky News – he is feeding the idea that the 2016 result is “provisional, that the battle is not yet won”, the very narrative that the People’s Vote campaign has been trying to encourage. Why take the risk? Because “it is in his nature”. Farage is a showman not a statesman. While ministers “fret over the practicalities of Brexit, the populist right keeps itself busy with less
dull work”. The essence of populism is not democracy, but the idea that there are “simple solutions to complex problems”.