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.


Beijing dismisses ‘hearsay’ on Muslim internment

Updated 42 min 10 sec ago
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Beijing dismisses ‘hearsay’ on Muslim internment

  • Critics say China is seeking to assimilate Xinjiang’s minority population and suppress religious and cultural practices that belong in the minority
  • Beijing has repeatedly described the camps as vocational “training centers” that were built to help people drawn to extremism

BEIJING: China defended its internment of Muslims in the country’s northwest as a terror prevention measure on Tuesday, calling on the international community to reject “hearsay” and believe its official line.
Up to a million Uighurs and other Chinese Turkic-speaking minority groups have been placed in political re-education camps in the Xinjiang region, according to a group of experts cited by the United Nations.
After originally denying the existence of the centers, Beijing has repeatedly described the camps as vocational “training centers” that were built to help people drawn to extremism to stay away from terrorism and allow them to be reintegrated into society.
But the program has faced rising criticism outside the country — notably from the United States and human rights groups.
“We hope our journalist friends and our other foreign friends will take into consideration the information and briefings on the situation given by the Chinese authorities,” said China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“Rumours and hearsay should not be believed,” he said standing next to his German counterpart Heiko Maas at a press conference.
“It’s quite clear that the government in Xinjiang knows best what is happening in Xinjiang — not other people and third party organizations.”
Critics say China is seeking to assimilate Xinjiang’s minority population and suppress religious and cultural practices that conflict with Communist ideology and the dominant Han culture.
Former inmates of the camps say they were detained for having long beards or wearing the veil.
Attacks attributed to Uighurs have left hundreds dead over the last few years in China, many of them in Xinjiang, where Beijing says its concerned about a rise in Islamic radicalism.
The authorities have put in place intrusive measures of security — ubiquitous surveillance cameras, DNA sampling, home visits by officials and GPS trackers in cars.
“We call that a combination of repression and prevention. But we place the priority on prevention. If it’s done well, terrorism won’t expand and take root. It’s the most effective way to combat terrorism,” Wang Yi said.
The German foreign minister did not mention the Xinjiang region at the press conference, but did say he had “spoken on the question of human rights” during his closed meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
A debate on the situation in Xinjiang was held in the German parliament last Thursday.
China’s ambassador to Berlin expressed Beijing’s “profound discontent” and put in an official protest following the “blatant interference” in its “domestic affairs.”