Oettinger dismisses claims EU to blame for Italian bridge collapse

A general view of the collapsed Morandi bridge the day after the disaster in Genoa, Italy. [Luca Zennaro/EPA]

Brussels has recently encouraged Italy to increase expenditure in infrastructure, EU officials said on Thursday (16 August) in response to Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s allegations that the bloc’s austerity policies were partly responsible for Italian bridge collapse.

“It is very human to look for somebody to blame when a terrible accident like Genova happens. Still, it’s good to look at the facts,” Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger said on his Twitter account.

The Commission has argued that over the past few years, Italy has had access to billions of euros in EU funds to develop and maintain its infrastructure, and stressed that it has recently approved a national investment project aimed at reducing traffic over the collapsed bridge.

Brussels encouraged Italian investment 

The Morandi bridge – an aqueduct built in the 1960s as part of the A10 motorway – collapsed on Tuesday (14 August) during a violent storm, killing at least 39 people and injuring 16.

Salvini blamed the tragedy on the EU budgetary cuts Italy has experienced over the years and threated to disregard future spending restraints imposed by Brussels.

“If there are European constraints that prevent us from spending money to secure the schools where our children go or the highways on which our workers travel, we will put the security of the Italians above everything and everyone,” Salvini said.

Italy has been subjected to strict austerity measures for years, but the Commission argued that the Italian administration nevertheless enjoyed a considerable flexibility in the context of the fiscal pact.

This flexibility, the EU executive highlighted, allowed the country to invest more in the past few years “for instance in the development and maintenance of infrastructures,” Christian Spahr, European Commission spokesperson told the press.

In the country-specific recommendations for this year, Brussels actually encouraged the Italian government to increase investment in infrastructure. The document approved by the member states last June, recommends that Italy “foster research, innovation, digital skills and infrastructure through better-targeted investment.”

Italy PM declares state of emergency after bridge collapse killed 39

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared on Wednesday (15 August) a state of emergency covering the region around Genoa after a bridge collapse killed 39 people and severed the port city’s mainland corridor with southern France.

Traffic congest 

Commissioner Oettinger also pointed out that Italy is eligible to receive up to €2.5 billion of EU structural funds to be invested in infrastructure for the 2014-2020 period. Moreover, in April this year, the Commission approved an investment plan for Italian motorways valued at €8.5 billion.

This plan allowed the prolongation of two major motorway concessions. One of them, held by Autostrade per l’Italia, would allow concluding the ‘Gronda di Genova’, a road bypass aimed at easing the amount of traffic that weighed on the A10 and therefore on the Morandi bridge.

It was reported on Wednesday (15 August) that the ruling anti-establishment party Movimento 5 Stelle dismissed in 2013 the plan. In a local report, the party representatives described as “fairytale” warnings of an imminent collapse of the bridge.

The Commission has clarified that as the Morandi bridge is part of the trans-European road network, it is submitted to specific requirements.

However, responsibility for ensuring, monitoring and improving safety on these roads, still lies with the national government or the private company that holds the concession, as is the case with A10.

Although it is still not clear why the bridge collapsed, the Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli has called on the managers of the company Autostrade per l’italia to resign.

“It will be important to understand what happened to avoid another such disaster and I trust that Italian authorities will take the necessary measures,” Commissioner Oettinger stressed.

While the rescue efforts are continuing, the Italian government has threatened to revoke the company’s managing licence and hit it with heavy fines.

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