Are sewers, buildings and transport networks geopolitical? In divided Nicosia, Turkish and Greek Cyriot communities may be separate at the surface level but they share a subterranean sewer system. The planning, maintenance and funding of public infrastructure can reveal only too clearly the geographies of benefits and vulnerabilities. In the United States, President Trump’s plans for a border wall between the United States and Mexico recently brought the federal government to a standstill. Political opinion is deeply divided as to the wisdom of this physical demarcation.
In Italy, another project, this time involving a 270 kilometre rail link between the French city of Lyon and the Italian counterpart of Turin is mired in controversy. The locus of the discontent is firmly rooted on the Italian side of the border. First mooted in 1991, the so-called Treno Alta Velocità (TAV) project was supposed to usher in a new era of high-speed rail freight between the two industrial cities. However, for the last 15 years, progress has been slow and public opinion has been sharply divided as to the merits of the scheme.
In Italy’s Susa Valley, protests erupted in 2005 as local residents clashed with police and security forces. The valley is at the centre of the most complex element of the proposed route involving a 57-kilometre-long tunnel under the Alps. It is the most expensive part of a project estimated to cost in total 25 billion Euros. The cross-border tunnel has been costed at around 8 billion Euros. Arguments have raged about the environmental consequences of the tunnelling, the financing of the overall project and the projected economic benefits of the TAV on both sides of the international border.
In the 2018 Italian elections a new coalition government emerged involving the 5 Star Movement and the Northern League. During campaigning, 5 Star was critical of the TAV and called for its termination. The League, however, is supportive of the project as it looks set to benefit its supporters in the north of the country. Since their enforced coalition arrangements, both parties have traded barbs about the wisdom of the train link. Government ministers have spoken about scaling back the TAV, a move which itself raises troubling questions in the wake of the 2018 Genoa bridge disaster. When infrastructure proves to be deadly it becomes even harder to bear when doubts are raised about maintenance and safety.
Whatever the Italian government does, it will have international consequences. This is a transnational and EU-sponsored project. There are three actors involved at a national and supranational level. All three parties have pledged funding for the TAV, especially the 57-kilometre tunnel section. The EU is responsible for nearly half of the total tunnel costs followed by Italy and then France. Pulling out of the project raises the ugly spectre of international controversy and the EU and France potentially suing a fellow EU member for money lost. Within Italy, the train link is generating new alliances as parties on the political left and right compete with one another to find a way forward. A referendum on the matter is one proposal currently on the table.
France, in the meantime, has demanded that the Italians make a decision one way or another. The French transport minister hinted in November 2018 that the Italian government needed to decide on the matter by January 2019. The EU is arguably the party most wedded to the project and sees the train link as complicit with its Mediterranean transport corridor plan. It is optimistic that a high-speed train link will contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of road freight traffic within the EU. Some four million lorries criss-cross the Po Valley every year.
It’s the 5 Star movement that has the most to lose politically. Its manifesto was critical of the TAV and argued that it distracted attention away from pension reform and basic income provision. In the Susa Valley in the Piedmont region of Italy, public opposition to the train link (‘No TAV’) remains undimmed. On the other hand, in January this year, public protests in favour of the TAV were held in Turin. Supported by local mayors and business associations, an estimated 40,000 people marched through the city. The backdrop to these protests were new economic forecasts which warned of further stagnation of the Italian economy. Business and consumer confidence is said to be low and advocates of infrastructure investment will often point to its capacity to boost investor confidence as well as generating new employment. The EU thinks that up to 15,000 extra jobs could be generated in business and tourism.
Also in January, newspapers reported that the next cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the coalition government in Italy is likely to be critical of the TAV. If that is so, pressure for a referendum in Italy will grow. But as the Brexit referendum reminds us, referenda don’t provide easy answers.
This was published in the March 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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