21st Oct 2016

Italy earthquake is test for Renzi

  • Rescuers in Amatrice. The town has become the symbol of the disaster that killed at least 247 people (Photo: reuters)

"It looks like a war-torn place," Angelo Schiavoni, a resident of Arquata del Tronto told EUobserver on the phone.

The small town is located in central Italy, just a few kilometres away from Pescara del Tronto, a village which was flattened by the 6.2-magnitude earthquake that hit Italy early Wednesday (24 August).

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  • Prime minister Renzi's reaction has so far been considered as appropriate (Photo: Italian PM office)

The disaster has claimed at least 267 lives and could be a political challenge for Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, both domestically and in his relations with the EU.

Beside shock, there is anger.

"This tragedy is also the fault of decades of incompetent and corrupt local and national administrations," an official from Rieti, 30 kilometres away from the epicentre, told this website. As he works in the public administration, he asked to remain anonymous.

The official is not the only one who is furious. On Italian news websites and blogs one can read insults against the Italian ruling class, such as "jackals" or "vultures", and harsh criticism of politicians.

“The responsibility lies with the current and past governments. Not only they don’t care, but they even exploit reconstruction efforts to make money," said one comment posted on a blog close to the Five Star Movement, the party founded by Beppe Grillo that is leading in opinion polls.

Yet, in the most damaged towns, people have praised the efficiency of the rescuers, especially of the Civil Protection office, the national agency dealing with emergencies. "They arrived straight away," Schiavoni said.

"We have civil protection and carabinieri [police] helping us, they are always available and we have anything we need. They are very efficient. I just hope the help won’t finish in a couple of weeks."

The town of Norcia is just a few kilometers from Pescara del Tronto but suffered much less damage.

After it experienced severe earthquakes in 1979 and 1997, the town undertook important anti-seismic measures.

"It is all right here, we are working to send food and help the hardest-hit towns such as Amatrice and Accumoli," Norcia resident Roberto Giommi told EUobserver.

"We were lucky not to suffer any damage, so now we must help those in trouble," he said on the phone.

It is difficult to find an Italian who has never experienced a quake, a wildfire or a flood. Italy is one of the European countries most exposed to seismic activity. Many buildings are old and very expensive to modernise.

In 2009, a previous earthquake killed 309 people in L’Aquila, about 50 kilometers from Wednesday's earthquake.

At that time, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was much criticised for his reaction to the disaster.

In one ill-advised stunt, he paid for bottles of champagne to be placed in containerised homes for people made homeless by the tremor.

So far, the current government’s reaction has been considered appropriate.

Renzi seems determined. A few hours after the quake he went with the minister of infrastructure to Amatrice, the devastated town that has become the symbol of the tragedy.

"By going to Amatrice and Rieti to preside over emergency meetings with minister Delrio and the presidents of the hit regions, Renzi has shown much more responsiveness than Berlusconi after L’Aquila," Giulio Sapelli, professor of economic history at the University of Milan, told this website.

"Now we need to reconstruct, but that costs money, and there are the limits of the fiscal compact prescribed by Brussels," he said referring to the EU budget rules.

Sapelli said that the government should increase the public debt to cover the cost of reconstruction.

"That will be very hard and will take a long time," he said.

The academic added that although Renzi’s popularity is increasing after months of declining support, "it will drop again should he not manage to get new fiscal concessions from Brussels".

Renzi has been trying for many months to get more budget flexibility from the EU, and in Italy many see the EU as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

"In Europe they are more concerned about energy savings than about the safety of our homes," Armando Zambrano, the chairman of the National council of Engineers, told Il Fatto daily on Wednesday.

"The Italian government needs more fiscal flexibility to act in the destroyed areas,” political scientist Gianfranco Pasquino told EUobserver.

"Everybody in Brussels knows that disasters like this one imply European solidarity," said Pasquino, who is professor of the Bologna Centre of the School of Advanced International Studies of the John Hopkins University.

"Rome has to ask the EU more fiscal space," he said. "But it will only succeed by showing to have a clear and concrete plan."

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