Bloodstained colours of Benetton
Toby Abse looks at the politics underlying the collapse of the Genoa bridge
The collapse of the Morandi motorway bridge in Genoa on August 14 has given rise to a certain amount of tension within Italy’s governing right-populist coalition between Matteo Salvini’s Lega and the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) led by Luigi Di Maio.
Whilst both these deputy prime ministers were cheered by the 3,000-strong crowd at the Genoese state funeral for 19 of the 42 victims on August 18 - in sharp contrast to the representatives of the Partito Democratico (PD), who were booed - this apparent united front may be a fragile one. The bridge’s collapse has brought to the surface questions about privatisation and public ownership of utilities that had been to a large extent ignored over the last two decades, during which none of the major parties contested the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. M5S talk of taking all or part of Italy’s motorways back into the public sector may have started as a diversionary strategy, and may ultimately prove to be hollow demagogy, but it does put them at loggerheads with theLega and its ideological commitment to the private sector.
Given my total lack of technical expertise, it is not my intention in this article to apportion blame for the bridge’s collapse - if we are lucky, the legal investigation that has just begun will come up with some answers1 - but I will make some reference to various theories that have been put forward in good or bad faith.
First of all, we can dismiss Salvini’s initial response - that it was all the fault of the European Union, whose austerity policies had deprived Italy of the funds required to maintain its infrastructure. Salvini is always eager to pick a fight with the EU, but, as the EU budget commissioner reminded him, it is “good to look at facts”: the EU has encouraged, rather than discouraged, the Italians to spend money on infrastructure (as opposed to pensions or other forms of welfare), and the Italians have often failed to spend EU funds allocated for such purposes.
It is quite likely that Morandi bridge, opened in 1967, had design faults from the start. It is probably no coincidence that an early bridge designed by Riccardo Morandi, in Venezuela, had collapsed before the Genoa bridge was even started. Two of his other bridges have been closed, and one has been demolished. It is undoubtedly the case that the bridge had to bear a far heavier weight of traffic, particularly in terms of lorries, than it was designed to carry back in 1967.
This brings us to the reason why M5S was so anxious to blame Autostrade Per L’Italia (Aspi) - the private contractors owned by the Benetton family (through Atlantia holding company, in which the Benettons are majority shareholders), who run this section of the motorway - for the disaster. The previous local administration of Genoa, led by the PD, had planned to build a motorway bypass that would have provided an alternative, longer, inland route, for many of the heavy lorries that put so much extra pressure on the ill-fated bridge. However, they were faced with a vociferous local protest group known as the No Gronda, which was uncritically backed by M5S. Fearing the electoral consequences, the PD-led council backed down over the bypass scheme.
In the event, internal disputes within the local M5S meant that the PD lost Genoa to a Lega-dominated ‘centre-right’ administration, rather than to the M5S backers of the No Gronda. Former leader Beppe Grillo’s website - still the official M5S one back in 2013 - had published a statement dismissing worries about the safety of the bridge as a “fairy tale” and claiming that it could endure “another hundred years”. In a nauseating display of its usual opportunism and hypocrisy, M5S shamelessly removed the five-year-old post from its website within hours of the bridge’s collapse. Hence the rapidity with which Di Maio and his M5S transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, turned onAspi.
It may well be the case that Aspi failed to carry out sufficiently thorough or frequent checks on the safety of the motorway bridge (something which its lawyers are vehemently denying), but what is beyond dispute is that the contract it obtained from the Italian state was absurdly favourable, giving it a guaranteed annual rate of return on its investment of 10.21% gross (6.85% after tax).2 The system governing the running of Italian motorways in very broad terms resembles the system used in the UK for railways, except that the residual powers of the state enterprise that owns the motorways seem rather weaker than those of Railtrack vis-à-vis the private companies with rail franchises, and the motorway contracts have been awarded for a far longer period.3
Responsibility for this privatisation, which seems to lack any of the transparency and commitment to free competition that the neoliberal proponents of the small state claim to believe in, rests primarily with the centre-left governments of the late 1990s, dominated by ex-communist renegades newly converted to the virtues of privatisation. The terms, including the ridiculous extension of the contract until 2038, were devised by Romano Prodi’s government in 1997. His successor, the ex-communist Massimo d’Alema, was responsible for the actual sale of the motorways (or, to be precise, the right to run them and collect the tolls) in 1999 - 30% of them ended up with the clothing company Benetton at this stage. The Venetian fashion firm paid 5,000 billion lira (roughly €2.5 billion).
D’Alema, in view of his extremely belated left turn and recent involvement in the left-social democratic Liberi ed Uguali (LeU), has tried hard to defend his actions of two decades ago against furious M5S criticism. He protested: “It was not my government that allowed the Benetton family to increase their share from 30% to 60%, or that guaranteed them the possibility of an automatic increase in the tolls [in line with inflation].” He added, with rather understandable vitriol: “The super-profits arrived thanks to the increase in the tolls guaranteed by the votes of Salvini and the Lega.”4
In 2003, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi passed a law authorising the fusion of various companies in a Benetton-led consortium. During the second Prodi government (2006-08), infrastructure minister Antonio di Pietro made some attempt to tighten the rules in a manner less favourable to the franchisee. However, in 2008 Berlusconi’s fourth government approved the so-called ‘Save Benetton’ (Salva Benetton) law that cancelled the obligations to carry out rigorous periodic tests on the franchisees, which had been introduced by the Prodi government. It should be stressed, in view of Salvini’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the deaths resulting from the collapse of the bridge, that the Lega and Salvini himself voted in favour of this disgraceful measure, which was clearly contrary to the interests of drivers in terms of safety, and far from stringent in obliging the private companies to invest in all necessary maintenance. It has recently emerged that Benetton made donations to a fairly wide spectrum of political parties around this time - it is no doubt pure coincidence that the largest donation was to the Lega Nord.
Naturally, I am not seeking to exculpate recent PD-led governments from all blame for the state of Italian motorways. In 2014, Matteo Renzi’s administration implicitly endorsed the extension of the franchisee’s contracts, and it was PD prime minister Paolo Gentiloni who extended Aspi’s ridiculously favourable contract for another four years up to 2042, in return for the company agreeing to build the Genoa motorway bypass referred to earlier.
Since the EU gave the Italian government the go-ahead for this extension, one might argue that the EU Commission (or its bureaucrats) shares the responsibility for turning a blind eye to any misdeed by Aspi, but, far from stopping Italy from spending money on new infrastructure, as Salvini claimed in his characteristically xenophobic outburst in the immediate aftermath of the Morandi bridge tragedy, they were very much encouraging it.
It should be emphasised that the collapse of the Morandi bridge is not only a major human tragedy, but something that will have a serious impact on the city of Genoa and the Italian economy as a whole for some time to come. The viaduct linked the eastern and western sides of the city, which are divided by a major railway line and a river, and was crucial to the transportation of goods to and from the city’s port - quite apart from its role on a motorway that, until a few weeks ago, linked France and Italy.
Therefore the argument as to whether Aspi should have a role in the construction of a replacement bridge, or whether the task should be delegated to the Italian state, as M5S is currently arguing, has national significance. The question of whether Aspi should just pay a large fine or should have its concession revoked (and whether it should then be awarded to another private company through a process of tendering, as the Lega wants, or nationalised as M5S are arguing) has destroyed the consensus in favour of privatisation.
It is no accident that both Repubblica and Corriere have run numerous partisan articles deploring the inefficiency and corruption of Italy’s state industries before the 1990s, and are far less keen to mention the inefficiency and obvious corruption associated with privatisation. The Italian establishment does not want to hear anything about nationalisation and in the recent past has relied on the PD to stop this question ever being raised in the mainstream media.
1. Provided, of course, that no relevant evidence is concealed, and no attempt is made to bribe or threaten the investigators.
2.Corriere della Sera August 28.
3. Companies like Aspi derive their revenue from motorway tolls.
4. La Repubblica August 28.