EU hits back at claims it is to blame for Italy bridge tragedy

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, suggested EU rules contributed to the Genoa bridge collapse (Getty)

The EU has hit back at Italy’s populist government over suggestions its policies are to blame for the Genoa bridge collapse.

The European Commission’s daily press conference began with a detailed rebuttal to claims made by Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, that EU spending “constraints” had contributed to the tragedy in which 39 people died.

Spokesman Christian Spahr said the Commission, the EU’s executive, had remained silent until now “in respect of the terrible nature of the things that happened.”

But he added “we think the time has come to make a few things clear” and pointed out:

  • Italy has been allocated €2.5bn in EU funds for infrastructure investment between 2014 and 2019
  • The Commission approved €8.5bn worth of state aid for Italian motorways improvements, including in the Genoa region.
  • The EU’s country specific recommendations published in May called on Italy to “better target investment to foster infrastructural development.”

Spahr said: “For the record, under the agreed fiscal rules, member states are free to set specific policy priorities.

“For instance, the development and maintenance of infrastructure. In fact, the EU has encouraged investment in infrastructure in Italy.”

A lorry abandoned on the remaining section of the 50-year-old bridge that collapsed on Tuesday (Getty)

The Commission was responding to comments made by Salvini, the leader of the eurosceptic Northern League party and now Italy’s highest profile politician, during a visit to Genoa on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters at the scene of the tragedy, Salvini didn’t point the finger directly at Brussels but strongly implied its policies had played a role.

“There are so many schools, hospitals, railways, rivers, and motorways that need maintenance, but often we’re told we can’t spend money due to European constraints on our budget, which take our deficit and our GDP into account, amongst other things,” he said.

“As a result, I think our next economic move must be centered around the safety of Italians, their right to life, work, and their health. With all due respect, only when those factors have been taken into account should constraints be considered.”

The Italian government has also singled out the company which operates the bridge, Autostrade per l’Italia, for blame. Shares in the company have since fallen by around 22%.

Shares in other Italian toll road companies also fell as Italian deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio suggested the government could strip private firms of contracts to run motorways in light of the accident.

“It’s not possible that someone pays a toll to die,” Di Maio said. “Those who were supposed to do the maintenance work did not do it properly. That bridge should have been closed before this tragedy happened.”

“The profits that these companies make as monopolies anger many people … a lot of money should have been invested in security, but instead it went towards dividends.”

Emergency services are still searching the rubble in an operation that could continue for the next 48 hours, but they are not hopeful of finding any survivors.