Populists battle over Italy-France train project

With furious M5S voters burning its flag over other perceived betrayals, analysts have warned a go-ahead on the line could be devastating, particularly for populist leader and deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio. (File/Reuters)
Updated 09 November 2018
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Populists battle over Italy-France train project

  • The contested project is for a 57 kilometers (35 miles) long tunnel between the Susa Valley and Maurienne Valley
  • The bill for the tunnel is being split 40 percent, 35 percent and 25 percent between the European Union, Italy and France

MILAN: A contested high-speed train line between Italy and France has become a key battleground for a divided populist government in Rome, with part of the coalition demanding the project be scrapped.
Business leaders are expected to lead a rally on Saturday urging Rome to forge ahead with the 8.6-billion euro ($9.8-billion) tunnel through the Alps for the line linking Turin to Lyon, which has already been partially dug.
The rail link will reduce travel time between Milan and Paris from almost seven hours to just over four.
As well as being attacked by environmentalists, the line has been criticized as a misuse of public funds and the anti-establishment Five Stars Movement (M5S) had pledged to block it if elected.
But its government partner, the far-right League, favors the venture and the movement now fears the so-called TAV may join the growing list of promises it has been forced to break.
With furious M5S voters burning its flag over other perceived betrayals, analysts have warned a go-ahead on the line could be devastating, particularly for populist leader and deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio.
“Italy is the second largest manufacturing country in Europe, and it is in its interest to have large-scale infrastructure,” insists Vincenzo Boccia, head of the industry lobby Confindustria.
Turin’s city hall — run by the M5S — voted against the line last week, as protests raged outside. The following day, the Piedmont regional council — where the center-left has the majority — voted in favor.
Piedmont head Sergio Chiamparino has said he is ready to hold a referendum on the issue to decide once and for all, while supporters of the project are to demonstrate in Turin on Saturday, along with local French politicians.
The contested project is for a 57 kilometers (35 miles) long tunnel between the Susa Valley and Maurienne Valley.
Proponents of the line, launched nearly 20 years ago and officially scheduled to be finished in 2025, argue that it will rid the roads of a million trucks and avert some three million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
But supporters fear the M5S could get its way should the League believe the coalition’s future is at risk over the project.
Paolo Ugge, head of the Conftrasporto transport and logistics confederation, said it was “unacceptable that a strategic piece of infrastructure... could be sacrificed as a bargaining chip.”
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said a decision on the TAV will be taken after a “cost-benefit analysis.”
The bill for the tunnel is being split 40 percent, 35 percent and 25 percent between the European Union, Italy and France.
French Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne on Monday promised in parliament “the government’s determination to build this infrastructure.”
Borne said she respected Rome’s decision to carry out a new evaluation of the line’s social and economic impact, but warned that the clock was ticking for launching tenders for the project.
She will meet her Italian counterpart for talks on Monday.
France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire in August said there were “legitimate questions” being asked by the Italian government over its profitability.
The EU is trying to encourage both countries to move forward with a program that will otherwise leave it out of pocket.
The European Commission’s then-coordinator for a trans-European railway network, Jan Brinkhorst, reminded Italy and France in September that the EU had already shelled out 370 million euros on the project between 2007 and 2013.
A further 814 million euros for the 2014-2020 period has been signed off on, including 120 million euros already paid.
He warned that scrapping the project could result in the EU demanding its money back, according to European sources.
And in a carrot and stick approach, he suggested there could be more money if the project goes ahead.
The Commission has proposed upping its contribution to cross-border projects to 50 percent — potentially bringing the TAV an extra 860 million euros.


Three UK Conservatives quit party in protest at “disastrous Brexit“

Updated 1 min 6 sec ago
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Three UK Conservatives quit party in protest at “disastrous Brexit“

  • Three resign to join independent group in parliament
  • Blow to PM May in efforts to clinch deal on exit from EU

LONDON: Three lawmakers from Britain’s governing Conservatives quit over the government’s “disastrous handling of Brexit” on Wednesday, in a blow to Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to unite her party around plans to leave the European Union.
The lawmakers, who support a second EU referendum and have long said May’s Brexit strategy is being led by Conservative euroskeptics, said they would join a new independent group in parliament set up by seven former opposition Labour politicians.
The resignations put May in an even weaker position in parliament, where her Brexit deal was crushed by lawmakers last month when both euroskeptics and EU supporters voted against an agreement they say offers the worst of all worlds.
While the three were almost certain to vote against any deal, the hardening of their positions undermines May’s negotiating position in Brussels, where she heads later to try to secure an opening for further work on revising the agreement.
With only 37 days until Britain leaves the EU, its biggest foreign and trade policy shift in more than 40 years, divisions over Brexit are redrawing the political landscape. The resignations threaten a decades-old two-party system.
“The final straw for us has been this government’s disastrous handling of Brexit,” the three lawmakers, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston, said in a letter to May.
Soubry later told a news conference that the Conservative Party had been taken over by right-wing, pro-Brexit lawmakers.
“The truth is, the battle is over and the other side has won. The right-wing, the hard-line anti-EU awkward squad that have destroyed every (Conservative) leader for the last 40 years are now running the ... party from top to toe,” she said.
May said she was saddened by the decision and that Britain’s membership of the EU “has been a source of disagreement both in our party and in our country for a long time.”
“But by ... implementing the decision of the British people we are doing the right thing for our country,” she said, referring to the 2016 referendum in which Britons voted by a margin of 52-48 percent in favor of leaving the EU.
Asked what May would say to others considering resigning, her spokesman said: “She would, as she always has, ask for the support of her colleagues in delivering (Brexit).”

INDEPENDENT GROUP
The three sat in parliament on Wednesday with a new grouping which broke away from the Labour Party earlier this week over increasing frustration with their leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit strategy and a row over anti-Semitism.
Another former Labour lawmaker joined their ranks late on Tuesday, and several politicians from both the main opposition party and Conservatives said they expected more to follow from both sides of parliament.
What unites most of the group of 11 is a desire to see a second referendum on any deal May comes back with, now that the terms of Brexit are known in detail — something the prime minister has ruled out.
For May’s Brexit plan, the resignations are yet another knock to more than two years of talks to leave the EU, which have been punctuated by defeats in parliament, rows over policy and a confidence vote, which she ultimately won.
Britain’s 2016 EU referendum has split not only British towns and villages but also parliament, with both Conservative and Labour leaders struggling to keep their parties united.
May has faced a difficult balancing act. Euroskeptic members of her party want a clean break with the bloc, pro-EU lawmakers argue for the closest possible ties, while many in the middle are increasing frustrated over the lack of movement.
Those who have resigned have long accused May of leaning too far toward Brexit supporters, sticking to red lines which they, and many in Labour, say have made a comprehensive deal all but impossible to negotiate.
But May will head to Brussels hoping that her team will get the green light to start more technical negotiations on how to satisfy the concerns of mostly Brexit supporters over the so-called Northern Irish backstop arrangement.
The “backstop,” an insurance policy to avoid a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland if London and Brussels fail to agree a deal on future ties, is the main point of contention in talks with Brussels.
British officials are hoping they can secure the kind of legal assurances that the backstop cannot trap Britain in the EU’s sphere to persuade lawmakers to back a revised deal.
But May’s argument she can command a majority in parliament if the EU hands her such assurances is getting weaker. A government defeat last week showed the euroskeptics’ muscle.
One pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker, Andrew Bridgen, said: “I would find it very difficult to accept a legal document from the same (party) lawyer whose definitive advice four weeks ago was that we could be trapped in the backstop in perpetuity.”