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.
Mr Salvini seems to be emerging as the de facto leader of Italy – he is after all nicknamed Il Capitano – shading the actual prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, a hardline anti-immigrant Europhobe who lacks Mr Salvini's talent for publicity.
These ugly arguments in Italy remind the Italian people and the wider European community that the country is embarked upon a uniquely dangerous exercise. There are hard-rightists in government or coalitions elsewhere in the EU, and in most states far-right or populist movements command strong support by historical standards. The Swedish Democrats, for example, are heading for elections on 9 September and is running second in the opinion polls – proof, as with trends in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, that the swing to the hard right is not confined to the poor reaches of the European continent. We have become inured to this since the start of the century, but by any benchmarks it is a disturbing and indeed frightening development.
Yet it is in Italy that the clownishness and denigration of normal political debate is being played out with the most risk and danger. The Italian government is openly discussing printing its own money – denominated in euros – as a way for evading its responsibilities under the rules of the European Central Bank, which has the sole right to run the euro.
The Italian government is also conducting the most heartless measures against refugees arriving from Africa. Mr Salvini made a great show of “closing the ports”, for example. His frustration, though, like that of many Italians, was understandable, or least comprehensible. Italy’s European Union partners have simply not done enough – with the honourable exceptions of Sweden and Germany – to share the cost and settlement of the refugees and economic migrants. The EU has failed to help Greece, Malta and Italy, who just happen to have coastlines nearest to the migrants’ jumping-off points for the hazardous journeys to Europe. None of this excuses or justifies the extreme reaction of the Italian state, however. Sooner or later, agents of that state will be responsible for the deaths of innocent people. It is unlikely that Mr Salvini and his colleagues will feel much remorse.
Italy has huge economic challenges, none of them the product of the refugee crisis. For years – long before the boats from Libya started arriving – the economy has stagnated, the public finances have been mismanaged, and the banking system increasingly used as a sort of piggy bank for hard-up Italian ministries. As in Greece, the strictures of the euro have made matters worse – but that is the nature of a single currency system that lacks any mechanism for “fiscal transfers” from richer to poorer regions, as in most unitary states.
Behind much of that lies Italy’s disastrous demographics. The ageing population means the outlook for public services remains bleak and a rise in living standards for all unlikely. The great irony is that migration – which overwhelmingly consists of younger workers – could start to fix the demographic imbalances and the consequent economic strain. Instead, Italy’s government blames and victimises the very people who could help the country to rebuild shoddy infrastructure and create jobs. That is a further national tragedy.
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