2018 09 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


In late Summer Italy was preoccupied both by the collapse of the Morandi viaduct in Genova and  the Dicotto migrant boat controversy. Both issues received immediate positive, blunt responses from the joint Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and little from Luigi Di Maio – the other Deputy. The handling of the issues also highlighted the tensions between the two ill-suited parties currently sharing government – the majority Five Star party, M5S, of Luigi Di Maio who should be leading policy decisions, and the minority partner Salvini’s Lega.

The Morandi bridge killed 42 people, including two workmen who unluckily were working underneath pylon 9 when it, and part of the roadway, collapsed. The tragedy was widely reported in the UK. The Italian press relayed with disdain the callous  British ITV news report which started with a jokey remark about being frightened when crossing such elevated structures.

The collapse was shocking but the Italian press was quickly full of local hearsay and actual evidence that the tragedy was not unexpected. Antonio Brencich of the University of Genova had said that the cost of maintaining this elegant but failing structure had, by 2016, begun to exceed the cost of building anew.

Brencich says that Morandi’s structures were initially viewed as innovative and exciting. Riccardo Morandi had built the first bridge of this type in Venezuela, after winning the commission to cross the 8.5-kilometre Maracaibo Bay. A tanker hit one of the pylons two years after completion and five people were killed, although the damage was limited to the area around the impact. It is said that the structure is not currently maintained.

In 1971 a much shorter bridge was built in Libya but concerns about its integrity closed it last year. Reasons for the Genova collapse feasibly include substandard concrete. A senior engineer working on the bridge speculated that the maintenance itself could have contributed to its failure.  However, in the late 50s and 60s Morandi did not have the technology to model and test his new structures, and the stresses and deformations of steel and reinforced concrete were uncalculable. Brencich summed him up, “He was an engineer with enormous intuition but without the available means to calculate at the same level.”

Brencich had been appointed to the collapse’s commission of enquiry along with the senior engineer mentioned above. The engineer was removed because of his conflict of interest and Brencich left at the same time.

Immediately after the collapse Matteo Salvini, also Minister for the Interior, issued a statement. He condemned the EU for the collapse. He based his reason on their stipulation that Italy must cut expenditure to control its budget surplus. He also said that all the households necessarily displaced by their proximity to the remaining structure would be rehoused by the end of the year.

And Di Maio? Or even Prime Minister Conte? (a paper PM). In contrast there was little from either of them. Paolo Giordana, part of the Turin mayoral administration, said that he had decided to break his silence about the M5S and Luigi Di Maio in particular, (La Stampa 24 August). Giordana had worked closely with the M5S Mayor of Turin, Chiara Appendino, and he knows Di Maio. He sees him as a “type of schoolboy….it isn’t possible to entrust our nation to the hands of someone this deficient (i.e.: unformed) who lacks the tools to understand what surrounds him”. Giordana doesn’t see him as either a politician or a statesman. He also sees the M5S as an “ignorant, superficial and slovenly mess”, and has recently resigned from his post as Cabinet Chief.

Italy’s second pressing issue came after the coastguard ship Dicotto picked up 177 migrants from what is the Maltese zone in the Mediterranean. This is a nominal zone and is in international waters rather than actual territorial waters. Ships have a duty to rescue craft in distress. Malta disputed that it was in distress. They denied responsibility as Lampedusa, in Italian waters, was the nearest port. Dicotto disembarked a small number of very sick migrants there and set off for Catania, a major Sicilian port with facilities for handling migrants. Danilo Toninelli, Minister for Infrastructure, gave permission to land. Salvini contradicted him a few minutes later. Technically Toninelli is responsible for the boat and the Interior Minister is not responsible until the migrants set foot on the dock.

Some unaccompanied children were given leave to disembark, plus a few more sick adults. Salvini took charge and refused to allow any further disembarkation. In June Salvini had refused permission of the Aquarius to land with 600 migrants. He forced for the first time what had been the previous Pd (Partito Democratico) government’s unrequited aim, that of distributing migrants around Europe. Five countries took an equal share of the refugees. Now Salvini said: “In the spirit of European solidarity, of 27 countries, ….we have welcomed more than 700,00 arriving by sea, we have done our bit”. Also, he said: “immigration has changed and is the business of the Mafia”.

The Dicotto moored in Catania harbour and waited for developments. Salvini tweets as do his supporters. Many used Twitter to support his stance. One commented that migrants don’t arrive with papers but they all seem to have mobile phones. But the pro-humanitarian anti-Salvini pressure grew. A group of Catanians demonstrated with 177 arancini in their hands. Arancini, (cone-shaped rice balls), they said, are a symbol of welcome. The Church, politicians from other parties, Cgil the Trade Union and many others protested. Roberto Fico, the M5S President of the Chamber of Deputies also protested. Salvini attacked in response: “You are the President of the Camera, I am the Minister of the Interior”.

The Public Prosecutor of Agrigento (the local jurisdiction) Luigi Patronaggio made an inspection, saw cases of scabies, a hunger strike and opened an enquiry into the illegal imprisonment of the migrants. This will lead to a formal enquiry into Salvini’s actions. Salvini is totally unrepentant, and has attacked Patronaggio and the magistrates acting against him. Of Patronaggio, Salvini said:“ a few months ago he said to me that there is a high risk of terrorists aboard (migrant boats). Has he changed his mind?”. And later: We will soon reform the judiciary”

Silvio Berlusconi has given his support to Salvini. Di Maio has said that “Salvini….remains at his post and doesn’t violate the ethical code of the M5S”. On 28 August Viktor Orban the Hungarian Prime Minister, with equally firm views on migrants, visited Italy to meet Matteo Salvini.