Analysis. The far-right faction of Italy’s governing coalition wants to start digging tunnels for the TAV high-speed rail line to please its industrial backers. The 5 Star movement refuses, bowing to its base: ‘End of story.’ The disagreements could tear the government apart.

Rail project is a lightning rod for Lega-M5S conflicts

The conflict between the two parties is still nothing more than a tug-of-war, but it risks becoming a full-blown death match. On Saturday, both Di Maio and the Lega took a step further in that direction. As usual, the bone of contention is the TAV high-speed rail project, which would connect Turin to Lyon. But the conflict is in fact a lightning rod for all the other tensions that have accumulated over the last week, particularly over the authorization to proceed to the criminal trial against Salvini and the recession that has now been made official.

Before, the 5 Star vice-prime minister used to delegate the strong statements to his ministers and undersecretaries. On Saturday, however, he came forward with statements in his own name, and left a few burned bridges behind: “While the M5S is in government, the TAV will have no history and no future. When the great powers-that-be that have reduced the country to the present condition are clamoring for a useless project such as the TAV, the M5S stands with the people. With us in government, no ground will be broken on that construction site. End of story.”

Then, Di Battista went even further, coming down heavy on the coalition partners: “If the Lega wants to move forward with a hole in the ground which costs €20 billion and the people don’t need, they should stop messing around and go back to Berlusconi.”

Di Maio’s newfound inflexibility can be explained by the well-known reasons that Giuseppe Conte also recounted to Frau Merkel, but also by the fact that a difficult choice is approaching: namely, the vote in the Senate committee on the request to remove Salvini’s immunity. Their decision has not yet been made, but the likelihood is high that the M5S will ultimately vote against the request to send Salvini to trial—if they did otherwise, that would look like a full repudiation of the government’s policies, and would probably be its death knell. Since they are not likely to take that step, holding strong at least on the TAV will likely become a true life-and-death matter for Di Maio and his whole Movement.

Salvini’s reply, as usual, sounded falsely reassuring: “We’ll find a solution, as usual. If the project reduces travel times and pollution and is affordable, why not do it?” The head of the Lega also found a way to sidestep Di Battista’s provocative statements: “But the TAV doesn’t help Salvini at all. It helps the Italians,” he replied. To make sure that no one can drag him into a fight that would not be on his own terms, the Lega leader also put out clear instructions for the rest of his party: “No one needs to reply. I’ll take care of this matter.”

However, while the “hard” Salvini seems to have adopted an outwardly soft approach—albeit without budging an inch on the central issue, namely the construction of the railway tunnel—those at the party headquarters at via Bellerio have been passing out a much harsher message off the record, certainly not without the approval of the party leader: “To cancel the TAV project, it would be necessary to amend the Objective Law [Legge Obbiettivo, the 2001 law regulating the financing of large public works] by parliamentary vote, and we would vote in favor of the TAV together with all the other political forces except M5S.” In short, the real message is: either the M5S agrees to a compromise—perhaps via a regional referendum, a possibility which the same sources from via Bellerio keep mentioning, not coincidentally—or the fight will go to the Parliament, and the M5S doesn’t have the numbers. If things reach that point, however, it would become impossible for the current government to survive.

While, as we noted above, the hard line taken by the 5 Star Movement can also be explained by their need to preemptively counter the damage to their image that they would incur by voting to protect the Interior Minister from standing trial, the Lega’s own inflexibility is clearly influenced by the gathering omens of crisis and recession. They are in a similarly tough position: if they dropped the TAV project, that would mean severely—and possibly irreparably—damaging their relationship with their main base of support, from the Confindustria down. The Lega cannot afford that.

The Prime Minister also tried to quell the escalating tensions, but he had nothing new to say. He recalled once again that the government contract stipulated a review of the TAV project, and reiterated that the decision would be made “not on the basis of personal feelings, or of a single political force,” but on the basis of the cost-benefit analysis. The latter, however, continues to be kept locked away from prying eyes, in order to avoid any unpleasant incident. Toninelli is giving reassurances that it will be made public in a few days—but he has been saying that for months now.

Thus, with the TAV scandal, the vote on Salvini’s trial coming before the Senate, everyone’s nerves being on edge because of the economic climate, and Conte’s irritation toward Savona, the Minister of European Affairs, which is the reason for Conte’s attempt to move him to the position of head of the Italian Companies and Exchange Commission (CONSOB)—which, unfortunately, would be in violation of current law—the yellow-green ship is sailing straight into a major storm. No one wants a crisis—“Let’s not become divided” was Di Maio’s message to Salvini on Saturday evening. However, none of the parties can afford to stop in their tracks, and every move they make adds to the risks.

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