The catastrophic bridge collapse in Italy this week has prompted a public outcry over the country’s crumbling infrastructure and how it is putting lives at risk. But the question the public in Italy and across Europe should be asking is: why are their governments spending extra tens of billions of dollars on NATO militarism, while neglecting vital civilian infrastructure?
When the iconic Morandi motorway viaduct came crashing down this week over the city of Genoa – with a death toll so far of 39 people – the consensus among Italian news media and members of the public is that the bridge was a disaster waiting to happen.
The Morandi Bridge was built 51 years ago in 1967. Two years ago, an engineering professor from Genoa University warned that the viaduct needed to be totally replaced as its structure had seriously deteriorated. There seems little doubt that the disaster could have been avoided if proper action had been taken by the authorities rather than carrying out piecemeal repair jobs over the years.
Italian media reports say the latest is the fifth bridge collapse in the country over the past five years, as cited by the BBC.
Now the Italian government is calling for a nationwide survey of roads, tunnels, bridges and viaducts to assess public safety amid fears that other infrastructure facilities are prone to deadly failure.
What should be a matter of urgent public demand is why Italy is increasing its national spending on military upgrades and procurements instead of civilian amenities. As with all European members of the NATO alliance, Italy is being pressured by the United States to ramp up its military expenditure. US President Donald Trump has made the NATO budget a priority, haranguing European states to increase their military spending to a level of 2 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Trump has even since doubled that figure to 4 per cent.
Washington’s demand on European allies predates Trump. At a NATO summit in 2015, when Barack Obama was president, all members of the military alliance then acceded to US pressure for greater allocation of budgets to hit the 2 per cent target. The alleged threat of Russian aggression has been cited over and over as the main reason for boosting NATO.
Figures show that Italy, as with other European countries, has sharply increased its annual military spending every year since the 2015 summit. The upward trend reverses a decade-long decline. Currently, Italy spends about $28 billion annually on military. That equates to only about 1.15 per cent of GDP, way below the US-demanded target of 2 per cent of GDP.
But the disturbing thing is that Italy’s defense minister Elisabetta Trenta reportedly gave assurances to Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton that her government was committed to hitting its NATO target in the coming years. On current figures that translates roughly into a doubling of Italy’s annual military budget.
Meanwhile, the Italian public have had to endure years of economic austerity from cutbacks in social spending and civilian infrastructure.
Rome’s new coalition government comprising the League and Five Star Movement has called for a reversal in austerity policies and has vowed to increase public investment. Its leaders, like deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, have also at times expressed a lukewarm view of NATO.
After this week’s bridge disaster, the populist coalition government has renewed its calls for more investment in public services.
Nevertheless, why then is Italy’s defense minister giving assurances that the country will adhere to Washington’s demands for increasing its NATO budget? Minister Trenta, who belongs to the Five Star Movement, says her government remains committed to buying up to 90 units of the US new-generation F35 fighter jet.
Aggregate figures show that Italy spent nearly $300 billion over the past decade on military. The previous decade’s outlay was even higher in constant dollar terms, before the financial crash in 2008. And yet the Italian government – despite its populist appeal – is planning to allocate even more resources to military over the coming years in order to meet Washington’s ultimatum for the NATO 2 per cent of GDP target. A target figure that seems wholly arbitrary and abhorrent in the light of so many urgent social needs and neglected public infrastructure.
If Italian motorway bridges are collapsing now, the future for public safety looks even bleaker when more of the country’s economy is diverted to satisfy US-led NATO demands.
Moreover, this dilemma is not confined to Italy. All European members of NATO are being railroaded by Washington to significantly expand their military budgets. President Trump has lambasted European states as “free loaders” cadging off “American protection”. Trump has singled out Germany for harassment to boost its military budget. After all the hectoring, the Europeans seem to be responding too. At the annual NATO summit held last month in Brussels, the Norwegian secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg boasted that non-US members had increased their national military budgets by an aggregate $40 billion in one year alone.
A cruel irony is that last year NATO planners complained that Europe’s infrastructure of roads, tunnels and bridges needed significant upgrades to facilitate mass-transport of military forces in case of a war with Russia. The implication was that European governments would have to increase their national spending on civilian transport networks specifically to facilitate NATO military requirements.
That is tantamount to a parasite craving for more blood from its host. Already European infrastructure is in disrepair largely because of economic austerity enforced by disproportionate spending on NATO militarism. At a time when public need for social investment is acute, European governments are obeying orders from Washington to plough more financial resources into subsidizing the American military-industrial complex. All this madcap, irrational expenditure is supposedly to keep European citizens safe from Russian threats.
All too evidently, however, the biggest threat to European citizens is the way Washington and its NATO racket is bleeding Europe of financial resources – resources which instead should be spent on building safe roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Italy Holds Key to Restore EU-Russia Relations
Two parliamentary votes of confidence this week have enabled a new Italian government to finally assume power. The breakthrough could herald a radical restoration in diplomatic relations between the 28-member European Union bloc and Russia.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will lead an administration formed by the two main parties that emerged from the earlier March elections: the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League. Both parties present a strange blend of leftwing and rightwing politics, with the League being most associated with a strident anti-immigrant policy.
The eclectic coalition was the main reason why it took the parties nearly three months to hammer out an agreed plan for governance.
Nevertheless, two areas of strong common ground are a rejection of the EU’s economic austerity policies; and an explicit desire to reinstate normal relations with Russia.
Both M5S and League have repeatedly stated that they want to promptly end the EU’s sanctions on Moscow, which have been enacted over the past four years. Those sanctions followed Washington’s lead based on dubious allegations that Russia interfered in Ukraine’s politics, as well as hollow claims of Moscow meddling in Western democracies.
Significantly, and it’s a breath of fresh air in political thinking, the new Italian coalition parties have repudiated the official US-EU-NATO narrative accusing Russia of malfeasance. The M5S and League have decried the demonization of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and have both praised Russia’s role in helping to stabilize Syria from a covert war sponsored by NATO.
Much of the anti-immigrant sentiment surging in Italy, as elsewhere across Europe, stems from a growing popular realization that the flow of refugees has been fueled by US-led NATO wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Italy’s League has said that it refuses to make the frontline Mediterranean country a “dumping ground” for refugees due to illegal wars. It seems unfair to dismiss that resentment as merely an expression of “xenophobia” and “racism”. People have a right to resent the abhorrent results of warmongering caused by Washington and servile European governments.
The new administration in Rome also holds the view that sanctions imposed on Russia by Washington and Brussels have only exacerbated economic problems for Europe, from the huge damage to trade relations and the repercussions for European jobs and businesses. For this reason, the parties comprising the new Italian government have said they will veto the EU’s sanctions.
Crucially, the EU measures against Russia require unanimity among the 28 member states. Without Italy’s support, the European position of adversity towards Moscow will cease to exist.
That will inevitably further sharpen the cleavage between Washington and the EU. Tensions in the transatlantic alliance are already peaking over US President Trump’s policy of imposing trade tariffs, as well as his testy backsliding on international deals such as the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear agreement.
It remains to be seen, however, what pressure Washington and other European powers might exert on the nascent Italian government. Financial institutions and markets could destabilize premier Conte’s administration. Already this week higher Italian debt penalties were exacted by the markets on news of the administration forming.
Last month, an indication of the high geopolitical stakes was seen when the figurehead President Sergio Mattarella controversially intervened to try to block formation of the new government. Mattarella is an old-type transatlanticist and an ardent supporter of NATO from when he was formerly a defense minister. In the end, the blocking bid failed due to a popular backlash, and the new populist administration this week succeeded in gaining parliamentary assent to go ahead in forming a government.
We have been here before though. Recall how the Greek populist government led by Alexis Tsipras also previously raised hopes of overturning EU economic austerity policies and restoring relations with Russia. Tsipras quickly caved to all sorts of pressure brought to bear on him from Washington and Brussels.
Still, this time around promises to be different. Across Europe and in Italy in particular the popular anger at neoliberal capitalist policies is reaching boiling point. France, for example, is racked by months of industrial strikes.
There is also a burgeoning estrangement between Washington and Brussels which makes adhering to the much-vaunted transatlantic alliance increasingly difficult to justify.
Italy now, potentially, has the key to radically challenge EU policies for the benefit of ordinary citizens by rejecting neoliberal oppression and, secondly, by overturning the irrational hostility the bloc has shown towards Russia at the slavish behest of Washington.
Premier Conte’s first major official debut is attending the G7 summit being held in Canada over the weekend. The growing disunity and disaffection between Trump and the other G7 members will make it harder for any transatlantic axis to derail the new Italian government and its project for normalizing relations with Russia. A normalization that is long overdue.