Italy and devolution

To London-centric Britain, devolution of powers to regional mayors often seems like a no-brainer. In Italy, it's a little different. What, for example, if the local government’s policies are centred on 1950s Stalinist economics, the mayor a communist?

Corigliano Calabrò
Tim Hedges
On 27 September 2016 15:03

There are two seemingly unconnected news stories occupying Italian table talk at the moment. They involve marked and vociferous divisions of opinion which, unusually for Italy, is not necessarily along party lines.

The first is the controversial decision by the new mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, not to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. Those who are in favour of holding the Games in the Eternal City profess themselves astonished at her intransigence. Surely having the Olympics can only be good? And someone will pay.

Most of the cost would indeed be borne by central government and the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, is in favour of holding the Games.

Whilst Renzi is supposed to be the moderate, it is Raggi, the supposed populist, who is talking calm sense. She points out that the transport service and the rubbish collection are riddled with corruption and not fit for purpose. Rome cannot afford the Games, would only let itself down, and by the way hasn’t yet paid for the 1960 Olympics.

Renzi holds the reins nationally, but in a country with devolved power the decision is Raggi’s.

The second talking point in the bars and trattorie is Renzi’s constitutional referendum. The main point of this is to replace the Senate, which currently has equal powers to the lower house, with an assembly of the regions. This would have less democratic legitimacy, and therefore less power.

Less talked about is the quid pro quo of this, that some powers would be transferred upwards from the regions to the national government. It is too early to tell if this might include power to hold the Olympics, but it should certainly have an impact in other areas, such as energy.

The little seaside town of Corigliano Calabrò sits in the instep of Italy’s boot. A few years ago it was identified as having almost the perfect harbour for a project to bring much needed gas shipments to ease Italy’s energy crisis. The big gas boats need 15 metres of water depth and have a turning circle of a kilometre.

The reason Corigliano’s harbour was perfect is that it had been intended for shipbuilding. No ship had ever been built there, though. It seems to have been a whim of the town council. It was quite unused, maintained by local taxpayers.

A group of investors, including international oil companies, excitedly addressed the town council saying they could adapt the harbour, build a regassification plant, beef up the local power station and run a connecting pipe to the main north-south pipeline. There would be total investment of around $1billion and thousands of jobs would be created in an area of 80 percent youth unemployment.

No thanks, said the regional council, we’d rather have a yacht marina. So nothing happened. The area remains sadly undeveloped because your billionaire doesn’t just want somewhere to park his boat. He wants restaurants, hotels and nightclubs, and Corigliano Calabrò isn’t exactly Monte Carlo. The unemployment, tragically, remains.

While we are talking gas, Renzi has furiously been fighting the proposed North Stream project, which would pipe gas from Russian fields to Germany. His complaint is that it would not benefit the rest of Europe.

He may not have mentioned the proposed TAP southern pipeline plan, bringing the gas from the Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Greece and Albania. Its final leg is across the Adriatic Sea to Puglia, where it has been held up because there is a grove of 200 olive trees in the way and a regional government which doesn’t like big capitalist projects.

A success story? The city of Livorno said yes to a gas import terminal as long as they can’t see it from the highest building. So there is a floating terminal 50km away, over the horizon, with an underground pipe. The local dignitaries assembled, well refreshed, at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to check they couldn’t see it.

To London-centric Britain, devolution of powers to regional mayors often seems like a no-brainer.

But what if the local government’s policies are centred on 1950s Stalinist economics, the mayor a communist? The experience of Italy, whether it is holding the Olympic Games or just keeping the lights on, shows devolution can have its drawbacks.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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