Salvini Points Finger at EU After Italian Bridge Disaster Kills 35

(Bloomberg) -- The populists setting the agenda in Italy’s coalition government seized on the collapse of a bridge in northern Italy to question whether they should respect European Union budget constraints.

Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini of the euroskeptic League led the way, telling reporters in Catania, Sicily, that the failure of a roughly 50-year-old suspension bridge in Genoa shows how important it is to increase investment spending. He hinted that EU spending limits could put lives at risk.

Salvini Points Finger at EU After Italian Bridge Disaster Kills 35

“If external constraints prevent us from spending to have safe roads and schools, then it really calls into question whether it makes sense to follow these rules,” said Salvini, who heads the euroskeptic League. “There can be no tradeoff between fiscal rules and the safety of Italians.”

At least 35 people were killed, Ansa newswire reported, when a section of the 1,100-meter (3,600-foot) long viaduct gave way following heavy rain around midday. The road was built in the 1960s and sits on thin pylons as it crosses a river, railroad tracks, and buildings carrying traffic through the heart of Genoa. Salvini said he’s heading to the scene.

The tragedy comes as Italy’s anti-establishment coalition is preparing its 2019 budget, with Salvini and his populist ally Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement already demanding the EU bend its rules on deficit targets to allow them to boost spending and cut taxes. Previous Italian governments have long pressed for certain types of investment to be excluded from EU calculations.

Salvini’s allies picked up the baton, with Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli pledging to reverse the shortfall in maintenance and Claudio Borghi, head of the budget committee in the lower house of parliament, complaining about years of spending restrictions.

“The safety of the Italians must come first,” he said on Twitter.

Political Upside

Less than three months after taking power, the populist coalition is still enjoying a honeymoon period with voters and Salvini’s League in particular has surged in the polls. That will enable them to score political points by targeting bureaucrats in Brussels, said Francesco Galietti, founder of political consultancy Policy Sonar.

“The clear lack of maintenance on this bridge is some one else’s legacy,” he said. “But it could make it easier to push Brussels to accept more public investment.”

Concerns that Five Star’s planned citizens income and the League’s flat tax would widen Italy’s budget deficit, combined with contagion from Turkey’s currency crisis, sent the spread between Italian and German bond yields to the widest since early June on Monday, before recovering Tuesday.

Italy’s deficit this year is forecast to be 1.6 percent of economic output, well within the euro zone’s limit of 3 percent. But the Commission has insisted on narrower deficits for Italy to reduce its 2.3 trillion euros ($2.7 trillion) debt, the largest in Europe.

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi from the center-left Democratic Party, who has clashed openly with Salvini and Di Maio, criticized the deputy prime minister for playing politics, even as he acknowledged the concerns about the highways.

“Maybe finally it is the time to discuss infrastructure, but without ideology,” he wrote on Twitter. “But today, please, is a day only for silence.”

Budget Tensions

In the coalition agreement presented in May, the League and Five Star said they’d seek a deal with other EU members and the European Commission to exclude some investments from deficit calculations to allow for “consolidating economic growth and the country’s development.”

Salvini Points Finger at EU After Italian Bridge Disaster Kills 35

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, an academic roped in to arbitrate between Five Star and the League in government, is also traveling to Genoa from a brief vacation in his native village in the south. He said he was following the situation, but avoided making political comments. Di Maio, who is also on his way to Genoa, made similar comments. President Sergio Mattarella echoed Salvini’s demand for safety.

“Italians have a right to a modern and efficient infrastructure that they can safely rely on in their everyday lives,” he said in a statement. He said the public institutions and private operators companies that manage Italy’s infrastructure must be conscious of the need to prevent accidents and upgrade transport networks.

Shares in Atlantia SpA, which manages the stretch of highway, fell 5.4 percent to the lowest level since April 2017. The company said it is committed to rebuilding the bridge as quickly as possible and will cooperate with any inquiry.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.