Populists battle over Italy-France train project

Supporters of the Turin-Lyon railway, pictured here in 2015, say it will reduce travel time between Milan and Paris to just over four hours (AFP Photo/PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

Milan (AFP) – 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 criticised 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, favours 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.

– ‘Sacrificed’ –

“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 centre-left has the majority — voted in favour.

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 kilometres (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 tonnes 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”.

– ‘Legitimate questions’ –

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 programme 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.