After a period of mourning, the Genoa bridge collapse will have to be addressed. It could trigger infrastructure reforms, but Italy's populist government seems to only be looking for scapegoats, says DW's Barbara Wesel.
This weekend will be a period of mourning in Italy and especially in the port city of Genoa. The victims will be commemorated as the community attempts to provide comfort and support to grieving relatives. But the event is already marred by conflict: A number of the relatives are boycotting the official memorial service in protest against the government. Italy's populist Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is facing his first serious test, but failure in Rome seems inevitable.
Could the catastrophe bring about reforms?
The collapse of the Genoa bridge is the sort of public disaster that not only reveals the state of a nation but can also serve as the driving force for overdue reforms. People have already begun comparing the event with the catastrophic fire at London's Grenfell Tower in 2017. In both cases, there had been warnings from experts, as well as questions of political guilt, corporate irresponsibility and institutional shortcomings.
Such an event can traumatize a country, but the heartbreak can also serve to redefine its identity and strengthen its public institutions. Reports are now circulating that as many as 300 bridges in Italy are outdated and potentially unsafe. But the problems do not stop there: Hospitals, schools and railway lines — large parts of the public infrastructure — are also overdue for renovation.
At the same time, fundamental failings from Italian politicians and public sector authorities alike will have to be examined: The toxic mixture of corruption, carelessness, deferral of responsibility and disinterest are the grounds on which disasters like the Genoa bridge collapse occur.
How will the government respond?
The tragedy should serve as a litmus test for the partners of the new left- and right-wing populist government in Rome. Representatives from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) must now honestly admit they made a mistake when their leader, Luigi di Maio, ignored warnings of the the Morandi Bridge's potential collapse a few years ago. And they will also have to admit that it was foolish to block the construction of a bypass motorway near Genoa.
Instead, in a knee-jerk anti-capitalist motion, fingers are being pointed at highway operator Atlantia and its majority shareholder, the Benetton family. But this is a cheap way out because the threat of nationalizing privatized roads would not in itself improve the conditions of the motorways. On the contrary: the Italian state does not currently have the slightest capacity to organize the inspection and construction of the dilapidated roads itself. In fact, the handing over of this responsibility could worsen the situation.
The right-wing populists, headed by The League boss and current Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, are also making things easy for themselves. Salvini immediately declared that blame should be directed at the European Union, which allegedly limited Italy's expenditures and refused the necessary money for repairs and new buildings.
This scapegoating is, in fact, an outrageous lie: In the current budget period, some €2.5 billion ($2.9 billion) in aid has been approved for the improvement of infrastructure. And in May, Brussels published a report explicitly calling on Italy to increase public investment. In addition, a further €8 billion in funds were approved, which Rome should have spent without competition conditions. Moreover, no other country in the EU has received as many exemptions from savings requirements as debt-ridden Italy.
But the idea that this is a lie from the "bad Europeans" — especially the saving-mad Germans — goes down well in Italy. Therein lies the danger: that by shifting the blame beyond its borders, Italy will fail to reflect on problems that are very much homegrown.
A chance for a new start wasted?
The government in Rome likes to present itself as a force with clean hands, untarnished by the scandals of the past. But its reaction so far indicates that all that is being sought in the wake of this disaster are cheap ways out instead of fundamental reforms that will address deep-seated flaws in Italian bureaucracy.
Italians have a right to better public administration — to a functioning state that develops a sustainable concept of public welfare for the long term. They have a right, in every sense of the word, to a stable ground on which to walk. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the newcomers in Rome are attempting to grant that right.