Wednesday

26th Jun 2019

Feature

Italy train row exposes competing views of EU

  • Prime minister Guiseppe Conte: 'I am not at all convinced that this infrastructure project is what Italy needs' (Photo: Consilium)

As Italians head towards voting booths for the European elections this weekend, a big infrastructure project funded by the EU has rekindled opposing views of Europe, as well the country's own development.

According to its promoters a new railway-tunnel for high-speed trains through the Alps between Turin and Lyon is paramount to both Italian and European progress.

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  • The route of the controversial new trans-Alpine line - which has been in the planning since 1989 (Photo: Wikimedia)

Since a decision was taken in 1989 to carve out a tunnel to connect Italy with high-speed railways in Northern Europe, the construction of the so-called TAV (Treno ad Alta Velocita) has been linked to the debate about Italy's role in Europe.

But the issue has been strangely absent from the European election campaign, despite a row about it earlier this year between governing partners the League – who are in favour – and the Five Star Movement (M5S), which has built its local support around opposition to big infrastructure projects.

"We haven't seen any of the candidates around here," said Cristina Uran, a 57-year old citizen of Chiomonte in the Susa Valley, where the Italian entrance to the tunnel is supposed to be.

"I am pro-European. We are just 30km from the border with France, and this village used to be French. The language of this area is Occitan, so we are part of a cultural community that stretches all the way to the Costa Brava in Spain. I am all in favour of the EU, but especially if it serves its people and not just economic interests," said Uran, when EUobserver visited Chiomonte a week ahead of the vote.

Evolving rationales

Hardly anywhere in the EU has the prevailing model of economic integration been more hotly-contested than in Chiomonte. Since 2011, the valley has been militarised to protect the test-drillings, which have been declared of national strategic interest.

In 1989 France and Italy agreed on developing the project within the framework of the EU Commission's Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T).

Initially it was conceived as a connection for high-speed passenger trains, but when the first estimates of the number of potential passengers were proven to be wildly optimistic, the project was modified to include freight trains.

When the estimates for the potential transport of goods were also shown to be exaggerated, the promoters of the TAV emphasised the decrease in C02 emissions from planes and lorries.

But the environmental costs in terms of energy consumption, waste production and raw materials for the construction would, according to several studies, exceed any future benefits.

"The TAV must go ahead, because it would be a crime to even think about cancelling the tenders and losing hundreds of millions in investments, which also mean jobs," said Nicola Zingaretti just after being elected the new leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

However, the TAV no longer enjoys unanimous support from Italy's ruling class.

M5S has thrived on popular protests against the project, which reached their climax in 2011-12 with the opening of the building site. In 2016, M5S won the municipal elections in Turin, and last year they formed a new government with the far-right party League.

The Observatory for the Turin-Lyon Railway Line, originally set up by the government in 2006 to sell the project to the public, stated in 2017 that decision makers must now ask themselves if it "still makes sense to continue as foreseen? Or does something need to change? Or is it even better to stop and put everything back the way it was?"

The contentiousness of the issue has caused binding decisions to be postponed. In March a new call for tender was published. But the next steps depend on the outcome of the vote and its domestic repercussions.

"I am not at all convinced that this infrastructure project is what Italy needs," admitted prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

Declining industry

M5S deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio recently met with the local business community at the chamber of commerce in Turin to present a plan to reboot of Italy's industrial capital, which has languished over the last decades.

At the last minute, the meeting was moved to a smaller room in the building to avoid the embarrassment of empty seats. The president of the local business association was absent as the government's plans for investments in sustainable development in Turin were laid out.

For many years, the city's establishment has hinged its hopes of salvation from the collapse of its industry on the TAV.

The initial idea for the tunnel came from the Fiat-sponsored think tank Fondazione Agnelli in the 1980s, when the carmaker decided to diversify its portfolio by investing in the construction industry.

The Confederation of Italian Industry has estimated that the TAV would lead to the creation of 50,000 new jobs.

Therefore Di Maio carefully avoided any mention of the TAV as he tried to generate enthusiasm for his €150m plan of state investments in projects related to electric vehicles, next generation internet and the renewal of abandoned industrial sites.

"If this is supposed to compensate for the TAV, it is almost insulting," an entrepreneur, who wished to remain anonymous, told EUobserver.

MEPs avoid topic

Candidates for the European Parliament steered clear of the valley ahead of the vote, except for Silvio Berlusconi, who hovered over the site in a helicopter.

At this stage around eight kilometres of the first of two parallel railway tunnels, each 57.5km long, have been dug out along with some of the security exits.

People in Chiomonte have become used to passing roadblocks to access their vineyards and vegetable gardens on the slopes opposite the village.

On Sunday they also vote in regional and municipal elections: "Since 2011, the village has lost about 10 percent of its population and commercial activities," said Cristina Maria Uran, who is running as mayor for citizens' list "Una Squadra per Cambiare" (A Team for Change).

Uran competes with two other local lists. She claimed that representatives from the national parties have taken residence in Chiomonte to try to control local politics in the tight-knit community of about 1,000 inhabitants.

"The issue has had a huge impact on social life. It becomes unpleasant to live here, if people do not get along and talk to each other. Communities in the mountain can only survive if there is mutual respect," Uran said, while birds chirped away in the crisp air.

Cancellation?

Opponents fear that the TAV could end up like another of Italy's never-ending building projects, like the highway between Salerno and Reggio Calabria on the southern tip of the peninsula, which has been under construction since 1962 and become a pot of gold for organised crime.

Such cases have contributed significantly to Italy's massive sovereign debt.

Investigations show that companies controlled by the Calabrian crime syndicate 'Ndrangheta have managed to obtain subcontracts for TAV site preparations and for waste disposal.

Nobody knows exactly what would happen if the Italian government should decide not to complete the TAV.

According to League leader and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, Italy could face billions of euro in penalties, while M5S' transport minister Danilo Toninelli claims that estimates of the potential costs are exaggerated.

Despite a negative evaluation in 2018 by the European Court of Auditors about the possible benefits of the TAV and its prospects of ever being completed, the European Commission insists that the project must continue.

But outside the realms of politics and the media, many of Italy's public opinion makers have taken a stand against the project: "Among the many borderlines in the Susa Valley, there is also one towards the future: a different political future," writes Tomaso Montanari, an art historian and president of the civil liberties organisation Liberta e Giustizia.

All over Italy citizens come together to protect the nature and the cultural heritage, Montanari points out, but the threat posed by the TAV has transformed the Susa Valley into "an exemplary training ground for civic action".

"If there were less decisions forced through from above, I think people would accept the EU a lot more," Cristina Uran told EUobserver.

Author bio

Mads Frese is a Danish freelance journalist reporting from Italy.

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