After being carefully hidden away from prying eyes for weeks, the cost-benefit analysis for the TAV high-speed rail project has finally been made public. Indeed, it was published by Fatto, a newspaper with M5S ties, even before it went up on the website of the Ministry of Transport. Members of Parliament can learn about it from whichever of the two sources they prefer. It was not considered a priority to keep them informed, and they are clearly unhappy about the snub. But these are mere details; the important thing is that this document should put an end to the debate, effective immediately.
If any other public works project was going to lead to a net loss of €8 billion, there would be very little left to discuss about it. Even more, the cost-benefit analysis—approved by five out of the six members of the commission headed by Marco Ponti, after the sixth, Pierluigi Coppola, refused to sign it in a show of dissent—shows that even the smaller version of the project, the “mini-TAV,” would also lead to serious losses, albeit less exorbitant.
At first sight, the losses to be incurred in case of canceling the project also seem enormous: €1.7 billion. However, the ministry has put out a clarification: since the penalties will only actually cover the works already in execution, the amount that would actually need to be paid is somewhere between €130 million and €400 million.
Danilo Toninelli, Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, a member of the Five Stars, had no choice but to draw the inevitable conclusion: “The numbers are brutal. It is clear that there are other priorities in terms of infrastructure.”
That should have been the last word on the subject. Instead, the publication of the cost-benefit analysis seems to have opened up a political Pandora’s Box. The reason for this is obvious: the commission had been set up just to buy more time, headed by a technical expert who was known as being against the TAV, which is more than enough of a pretext for the chorus of the project’s supporters to start protesting loudly that its findings should be discarded altogether.
“From a farce, it has become a fraud, all to make the numbers look just like the boss wants them to,” said the Special Commissioner for the TAV, Paolo Foietta. His attack marked the opening of the floodgates, with accusations flying from all directions that the cost-benefit calculations had been somehow manipulated. The PD and Forza Italia were the most strident, but Berlusconi took home the prize with his Oscar-worthy performance on Barbara D’Urso’s show. He talked about everything, attacking the M5S from every angle, but the pièce de résistance of his one-man show was built around the TAV: “Do you or do you not understand that they are insane?”
The EU is biding its time, even as Tajani, from his perch as president of the European Parliament, remarked that the project was of fundamental importance for Europe. Giuseppe Conte, sent in as cannon fodder as usual, was mocked outright on the floor of the European Parliament by the Belgian leader of the Liberal group, Guy Verhofstadt, with a spectacular put-down: “I wonder for how much longer you’ll be the puppet for Salvini and Di Maio.” Conte tried to defend his government on the issue of the TAV: “It is a project of European interest,” but, as the cost evaluations were from
“25 years ago,” the government “considered it appropriate to update them.”
An official European and French position on the joint project will come in a few days, as they are currently “studying the documents.” Confindustria, however, has made its position clear already: according to its president, Mr. Boccia, ”the TAV means 50,000 jobs, and that is what is really important.” He failed, however, to explain why these jobs would fail to materialize if the funds were to be diverted to other public projects.
All these clamorous reactions were entirely predictable. The problem with the TAV is a political and symbolic one: new numbers cannot solve it. And there is only one reaction that will truly count, precisely because this is a political game: the response from the Lega.
Salvini played the diplomat when he arrived at the government majority meeting (from which Di Maio was conspicuously absent): “I have not read the document.” His underlings were less diplomatic: basically, whatever the economic analysis says, the TAV has to be built. “That document, it’s not the Gospel. Before sending the whole project up the river, we have to think twice. I don’t see it as a viable option to not build it at all,” said Molinari, the head of the Lega group in the Chamber of Deputies. Undersecretary Bitonci was even more blunt: “It will absolutely be built.”
The only way out of the project, according to Molinari, would be via a regional referendum. Otherwise, the vote in Parliament will be decisive—and that would raise up a storm that might be fatal for the government coalition, as the Lega will vote in favor of the TAV together with Forza Italia and the PD, leaving the M5S the only ones opposed.
The mysterious disappearance of Luigi Di Maio, who left the government majority meeting early on Tuesday and then disappeared for the whole day, shows just how tough of a position the Five Stars are in. Within the government majority, they are coming to the negotiating table with a very firm position against the project. But—as some authoritative sources have hinted—once the negotiations get underway, their stance may become much more flexible. Because, in the end, being in government is worth a TAV.
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