A Tale of Two Italys: A Furious Row over Competing Projects-One to Build a Flood Barrier for Venice, the Other to Construct a Suspension Bridge for Sicily-Says Everything about the Current State of the Nation

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When it comes to grand infrastructure projects, Italy rarely seems in a hurry. In the north, a plan to save Venice by means of a gigantic, multibillion-euro flood barrier system has been under discussion for 30 years. In the south, a plan to link Sicily to the Italian mainland by means of a gigantic, multibillion-euro suspension bridge has been under discussion for even longer.

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Now, at long last, there is movement in both cases: it appears that the flood barrier system will be built, and the bridge won't. Why that should be so is a tale that offers insights into several aspects of modern Italy--the relationship between the central government in Rome and the outlying regions, the environmentalist movement, organised crime, the shaky public finances, and the contempt in which left and right hold each other.

The two projects were championed by the centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi, who was prime minister from June 2001 to May 2006. They were the centrepieces of a characteristically ambitious [euro]125.8bn ([pounds sterling]85.5bn) programme to which Berlusconi committed his government, and which aimed to modernise Italy's crumbling infrastructure. The problem is real: Italy's expenditure on infrastructure, especially road and railway networks, has fallen far behind the western European average over the past 25 years. Yet it was never entirely clear where Berlusconi was going to get the money from. Italy's public debt, which is close to [euro]1.8trn and the world's third-highest in absolute terms, is larger than the nation's annual economic output. Funds for stupendous public investment schemes are stretched, to say the least.

All this emerged when Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition came to power a month after defeating Berlusconi in last April's general election. Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, Prodi's finance minister, told Italians that the cost of Berlusconi's projects had boomed to [euro]173.4bn ([pounds sterling]118bn), but that the government had only [euro]58.4bn ([pounds sterling]40bn) available. Hard choices were necessary; some projects would have to be ditched.

One could have been the Venice flood barrier system, otherwise known as Moses (the name conjures up biblical images of the parting of the Red Sea, but stands in Italian, more prosaically, for "experimental electromechanical module"). Massimo Cacciari, the mayor of Venice, disliked Moses. So did Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, leader of the country's Green Party and Prodi's new environment minister.

Various non-Italian conservation groups, not to mention many ordinary Venetians, were no more enthusiastic about Moses. On 2 February, four members of the European Parliament arrived in Venice to complain that Moses was "disastrous" and had "tremendous economic and environmental costs".

Yet Venice is a wonder of civilisation. Its artistic and architectural treasures are priceless. Some 60,000 people visit it every day. To the rest of the world, Venice defines something quintessentially Italian, even something magnificent and melancholy about mankind in general. It is irreplaceable. Moreover, the city's survival is genuinely threatened. Water levels have slowly gone up since the 1700s and there are even fears that, towards the end of this century, Venice may sink because of the rising Adriatic Sea. Some risks may be linked to global warming, some to the accumulation of silt in the Venetian lagoon, and some to the extraction of methane gas from the nearby sea. Whatever the causes, St Mark's Square, the lowest point in the city, already gets flooded dozens of times a year.

To prevent a catastrophe, Moses envisages the installation of 79 steel barriers, 20 metres wide and up to 28 metres high, that will be fixed to the seabed and rise up to seal Venice's lagoon from the Adriatic when high tides are forecast. If all goes smoothly, the barriers will be operational by 2011 or 2012. …