The Genoa bridge collapse is Italy’s Grenfell – and the government is too busy scapegoating migrants to get to the bottom of why it happened

Salvini’s attempts to dominate the media spotlight with sensationalist anti-immigrant statements simply aren’t good enough. In the wake of the disaster, the logic of privatisation must be challenged

Elisa Moretti
Wednesday 15 August 2018 18:10
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Genoa bridge: Aerial video shows aftermath of Italy motorway collapse

The Genoa bridge disaster which has so far taken 39 lives is a tragedy that could have been avoided. However, while politicians and contractors rush to point the finger of blame at anyone but themselves, it is becoming increasingly clear that the real causes lie in an approach to development that prioritises profit over the needs of people. Not dissimilarly to the Grenfell disaster, the causes of the collapse of the Morandi Bridge lie in decades of spending cuts in conjunction with a system of outsourcing that hands control over infrastructure to private companies and allows profit to be prioritised over citizens’ safety.

Though the bridge had been subject to many repair projects over the years, calls for a wholesale intervention had been bogged down by endless debate producing an impasse that eventually proved fatal. While national and regional governments had made plans for an overhaul of Genoa’s motorway system, there was debate as to whether such spending was justified, with the private sector and national and regional governments at loggerheads over the level of intervention required and more importantly, who should bear the costs.

It has also come to light that the local 5 Star Movement had also opposed the plans for the renewal of Genoa’s motorways. The party in the past has sought to ride off the back of various local movements opposing prominent infrastructure projects, such as the high speed “TAV” train which is set to force villagers in the Susa valley from their homes, and the proposed gas pipeline nicknamed the “TAP”. These even became central to their political programme. In government, however, it has significantly stepped down its opposition, stating that these projects, along with others, will be subject to a cost-benefit analysis but that their continuation has not been ruled out. In fact, over the last few days the government agreed a series of changes to the TAV plans, prompting the Five Star transport minister to reassure supporters on Twitter that the project has not yet been given the green light.

The Five Star’s approach to development and infrastructure spending has thus been somewhat contradictory. Indeed, whereas much of the opposition to the big new infrastructure projects is on the grounds that they will use up funds desperately needed elsewhere while offering nothing to ordinary Italians, the Five Star’s compromises with the League on the issues of the TAV and the TAP would suggest that those who thought that a Five Star government would pose a challenge to a profit-before-people model of development will be disappointed.

Both the League and the Five Star Movement are energetically pointing the finger at Autostrade per l’Italia, the private company responsible for Italy’s motorways, calling for the revocation of its contract and a €150m fine. The transport minister also attacked the company for high toll prices (which are among the highest in Europe) stating that the company’s failings are all the more deplorable given the fact that it receives “shameful” amounts of money from the state and, as it is registered in Luxembourg, pays very little in the way of tax.

However, if the League/Five Star government have been quick to blame Autostrade per l’Italia they have so far been less eager to discuss the issue of privatisation more broadly. This fits with their broader record in government so far: despite their radical populist rhetoric they have been slow to implement significant structural change. Indeed, Salvini’s attempt to distract from the seriousness of the Genoa disaster by tweeting about the Aquarius migrant boat is emblematic of how the new government has been functioning: while many of the Five Star’s key policy proposals that require state spending have been put on the back-burner (including a promise to implement a universal basic income), Salvini has been able to dominate the media spotlight with sensationalist anti-immigrant statements.

However, it is hard to see how failings will be prevented in the future unless the logic of privatisation is challenged. Italy has a history of poor infrastructure, bad urban planning and weak regulation, but privatisation means that when disasters such as the collapse of Morandi Bridge happen, blame can simply be laid with the contractor and the problem of broader reform avoided. Moreover, simply handing the contract for the maintenance of the railways to another company will not change the fact that from 2010 to 2014 Italy had the lowest spending by far on road maintenance of all the major EU economies, including Spain. Another company would simply not be obliged to spend any more to do a better job than Autostrade per L’Italia.

While many Italians have used social media to attack the Benetton family, which owns Atlantia, the holding company of Autostrade per l’Italia, there is less curiosity over why the maintenance of vital infrastructure was taken out of public control in the first place. A prominent global tycoon like Benetton could provide an easy scapegoat for the right-wing populists but the causes of this disaster are structural and run far deeper. They lie in a chronic lack of state spending on public infrastructure and in a system that takes decisions on planning, investment and regulation out of democratic control to serve private interests. We deserve better.

Elisa Moretti is an activist for Potere al popolo (Power to the people)

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