News Europe The open wound of southern Italy

The open wound of southern Italy

a hundred of arancini, those delicious battered pyramids of Sicilian rice and meat ragu, evaporate from the bar counter of the ferry crossing the Strait of Messina. Too good to survive a journey of barely 20 minutes. The route, covered by several companies and a dozen boats loaded with trucks and passengers that cross from one side of the canal to the other, links Calabria with Sicily. For centuries it was the imaginary bridge that joined the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. But also the fastest way to access services or necessities still forgotten in southern Italy. Today on this ferry ―the company is called Charon, after the ferryman of the dead souls in the Divine Comedy― Doctors, tourists, merchants, carriers, fairgrounds travel. A human test tube that contains many of the problems that plague southern Italy and that the right now wants to solve by recovering the old idea of ​​building a gigantic bridge.

The 3.3 kilometers that separate the tip of Sicily in Messina from the small and punished town of Villa San Giovanni (Calabria) are also the shortest line between the reality of Italy and the political propaganda that emerges every time there are elections. It has been going on for 30 years, when Silvio Berlusconi, then leader of an emerging Forza Italia, first promised that he would build a bridge linking the island to the mainland. A monumental project that should sew the open wound for decades between the north and south of Italy, where two economic realities coexist comparable to the GDP of Germany and Albania. An infrastructure that, in fact, had been talked about for a century, but that nobody had taken seriously until that political gambler put it back on the table. Now, in an electoral campaign in which the southern part of the country will once again be decisive, the right has dusted off a project that would hardly end the largest gap between north and south in a European country.

A woman travels on the ferry that runs between Messina (Sicily) and Villa San Giovanni (Calabria).Paul Manzo

The last tricks of the elections this Sunday are played from Rome downwards. The parties know this and closed their campaigns there. But almost none have been able to come up with proposals that are far from propaganda. There are no solutions to employment, to the lack of schooling, to a monstrous female unemployment rate, to the lack of transport infrastructure or to the ordeal of medical emigration that citizens of the South are forced to undertake when they fall ill. The left appears today as an elitist bloc. The 5 Star Movement clings to its Citizen Income proposal. And for the right, the solution is to build a bridge over the Strait of Messina linking Sicily to the mainland. “This is like if you don’t have anything to eat and you buy a gold ring. It is sovereign nonsense. In addition, that project has already been discarded. It is an environmental madness and it would not be safe”, points out the former mayor of Messina Renato Accorinti, one of the people who has fought the most against the bridge.

Ferry passengers disembark in Villa San Giovanni (Calabria), on September 21.
Ferry passengers disembark in Villa San Giovanni (Calabria), on September 21. Paul Manzo

On either side of the strait are two huge 386-meter-high red and white metal towers that once served as pylons for the electrical wiring linking Messina to Reggio Calabria. More or less along that imaginary line should pass the route of the monumental viaduct (six lanes for road traffic and two for trains). Up to the top of one of those towers, today converted into the scar of political propaganda, Accorinti climbed a few years ago to protest against the bridge. Since then he has not given up his battle. “It is no use building three kilometers to join Sicily if you then have to travel 800 kilometers with trains that go very slowly and run on diesel. Or it takes you four hours to get to Palermo. It is better to invest the money in it. The airports are not well connected; the ports are not up to the level of logistics that we could have. Look, to get to the center of Sicily it takes eight hours, the same as to Bombay, ”says Accorinti, dressed in a red shirt against the bridge.

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The last attempt, 10 years ago, was valued at around 10,000 million euros and was ruled out due to its environmental impact, but also because of the security concerns it raises. Just below the strait runs through the Messina-Taormina fault, one of the largest on the continent. In 2019, researchers at the University of London Birkbeck identified it as responsible for the most destructive earthquake in modern Europe, which in 1908 killed almost 100,000 people on both sides of the strait. The seismic movement also caused a tidal wave that devastated both coasts. That gap between the tectonic plates, more than 300 meters deep, is not the one that worries the country the most right now.

Italy is the European country with a more pronounced socioeconomic gap between its two extremes. The forecast released by Svimez, the institute that studies the development of the southern part of the country, anticipates that the GDP will be one percentage point lower in 2022. Life expectancy is already three years lower in Calabria than in cities like Trento; dropout rates skyrocket the farther south you go across the country. Italy decided to cut the umbilical cord with the south – then much richer than today – as soon as its unification began in 1847. In every sense. In fact, high speed ends today in Naples. From there, it’s time to find life.

The former mayor of Messina Renato Accorinti, against the bridge project.
The former mayor of Messina Renato Accorinti, against the bridge project. Paul Manzo

Luca Bianchi, president of Svimez, stresses that “from the economic point of view, the open crack is the same as after the Second World War: 40 percentage points of per capita income.” Bianchi also does not believe in the bridge project. “It irritates me. It is a way of confronting and reducing the theme of the South to tradition. It is a work that makes sense if it is connected with the high speed to the south. The central theme of the south is to improve the supply of public services: a health system like that of the north, reduce school dropouts, have nurseries The bridge is the traditional way of doing nothing. But there are no resources, not even in the PNRR [plan europeo de recuperacion]. That project was cancelled. When you don’t have proposals in the south, you always end up taking out the bridge”.

The bridge over the strait also works as a metaphor for many of the ills of southern Italy. Also the problem of the mafias. On both sides of the strait, the two main criminal organizations in the country, Cosa Nostra (Sicily) and the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabria), had plans at the beginning of the century to gain control of the construction and exploitation of the infrastructure . Niko Rozzuto, an Italian-Canadian related to the Palermo families, had already planned to invest 5,000 million dollars [unos 5.160 millones de euros] from drug trafficking in the construction of the bridge. Those were the times of Silvio Berlusconi, the great promoter of the bridge, but also of the clientelistic political system in southern Italy.

The situation does not look the same in the ranks of the right, which advocate the abolition of the Citizen Income ―Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy, closed her campaign on Friday in Bagnoli, a working-class neighborhood in Naples highly dependent on that subsidy. ― and opt for impact solutions such as the bridge. There is nothing: no project, no economic coverage. It has not even been possible to include it in the projects that the Post-Pandemic Recovery Plan could finance. Marco Falcone, Minister of Transport for the Sicilian region, is a firm supporter of building it. “The bridge over the strait is today a requirement for all of Italy and the European continent. It represents the infrastructure that would link the Mediterranean with the rest of Europe. We already had a project. But, unfortunately, the Government of Mario Monti decided to annul it and revoke any financing, suppressing the society of the strait that was the delegated entity to carry it out”.

Most affected neighbors do not want it, of course. Many houses would be demolished and most of the natural areas where birds nest in the area would be destroyed. But neither do the fishermen in an area rich in marine fauna, where the seasons alternate fishing for tuna and swordfish. Giovanni Andrò finishes mooring his boat in one of Messina’s natural lagoons. “It does not make any sense. This should be a protected place, and not a space to build such a behemoth. This is an island, right? Well, it is normal that it is not connected to the mainland. There’s no more”. The problem, of course, is not the island condition of Sicily; but the isolation to which the rest of southern Italy has been subjected.

Two fishermen from Messina, in one of the natural lagoons where mussels are raised.
Two fishermen from Messina, in one of the natural lagoons where mussels are raised.Paul Manzo

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Source: EL PAIS

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