The complex aftermath of the Genoa tragedy
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Shock is giving way to mourning over the 39 victims who lost their lives when a 200m section of the Morandi bridge at Genoa collapsed on Tuesday, sending cars and trucks plummeting below. Anger is never far behind.
There are many hard questions that need to be asked of Autostrade, the company part-owned by the Benetton family, which runs Italian toll motorways and was responsible for maintaining the bridge. There will be questions too, about the spending decisions of past governments. But Italians will be best served if the understandable anger welling up in the wake of this disaster, does not pre-empt the serious investigation that must take place.
In this tragic incident there are stark parallels with last year’s disaster at Grenfell Tower in London when 72 people died in an avoidable inferno. Residents there had long warned about inadequate safety standards. In Genoa too, there have been persistent concerns about the state of the ageing bridge, which spans a kilometre across the city, carrying a portion of the main A10 motorway. As at Grenfell, the disaster at Genoa will rightly cast a spotlight on political failings, institutional neglect and raise questions about possible corporate culpability.
That is a narrative that plays to Italy’s populist government which has been quick to apportion blame. The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, says the government cannot wait for justice to take its course and will be taking immediate steps to revoke Autostrade’s licence. The share price of its parent holding company, Atlantia, has dived.
Meanwhile, Matteo Salvini, the interior minister from the far-right League party, has set his sights on the EU and the fiscal constraints it has imposed since Italy joined the eurozone. A battle over his government’s expansionary budget was already brewing between Rome and Brussels. Mr Salvini clearly intends to use Tuesday’s calamity to intensify the fight.
Some of the initial instincts of the government may be right. To jump the gun, however, will devalue the findings of any subsequent inquiry. Leaping to conclusions risks making the outcome look like a fix. This is especially so in Italy where a nexus of political, business and sometimes criminal interests have given past judicial processes a bad name. This is a new kind of government that claims to be untarnished. It has an opportunity to show it can do things better. The public has a right to demand much higher standards.
Meanwhile, the immediate concern must be to prevent any further tragedies of this kind taking place. Riccardo Morandi, the architect who built the bridge at Genoa, deployed an unusual technique using reinforced concrete that encased steel cables supporting the bridge. Concerns about the soundness of this structure and escalating maintenance costs, had fuelled local debate long before the bridge gave way.
Mr Morandi built bridges across Italy and other parts of the world. One of them in Libya was closed for safety reasons last year. The priority must be to ensure these and other structures are standing the test of time.
As much as anywhere in Europe, Italy is in need of investment to stimulate growth. The case for greater spending to modernise the country’s infrastructure has never been stronger. Although many of its problems are homegrown and predate eurozone membership, fiscal constraints imposed by Brussels have often been too inflexible.
The disaster at Genoa provides the tragic background for a compromise, one in which Italy is given room to spend more on roads and bridges infrastructure.
Letter in response to this editorial comment:
Infrastructure investment has been tied up in red tape / From Carlo Stagnaro, Milan, Italy