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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

Genoa and Grenfell disasters: a common thread of guilt

In the aftermath of both the Genoa bridge collapse and the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, left-wing politicians and media were quick to scandalise their political opponents, ranging from sociological critique of callous capitalism to blunt reference to the 'fascist' Italian government or a Tory cull of the poor. Coverage of the Genoa calamity in the Independent typifies a tendency to issue ready-made partisan judgment on incidents of less simplistic aetiology. 

Interior minister Matteo Salvini, by attributing some culpability for the bridge disaster to the EU, caused a furore in the corridors of power. The Independent exploited the tragedy to attack populist Italian leaders, who are too busy turning away boats of refugees to deal with real problems of government. Indeed, the editorial suggested that the very men being barred entry to Italian ports could have been renovating Italy's infrastructure, a message that sounds like a Common Purpose training session. But it's ridiculous and insensitive to imply that a pilgrimage of sub-Saharan Africans could have been put to work on the ramparts just in time to save dozens of people from death.

Comments below the Independent article contrasted the common-sense realists who see the folly of the EU with idealists affronted by Salvini's impudence to their paragon of virtue. One comment argued that politically-errant governments should be deprived of EU funds (biting the hand that feeds – Italy is a leading net contributor). Somebody posting as 'Rationaliste' asserted: 'Salvini and his cronies just killed 37 people'. This stupid, libellous remark escaped attention of the moderator, while dozens of other comments were deleted (all of them, judging by responses, critical of the article).

'Social murder' was how Labour's number two John McDonnell saw the Grenfell disaster, ignoring the fact that the same faulty cladding used on this building was also fitted to over a hundred other concrete tower blocks in England. That the fire happened in Kensington & Chelsea was unfortunate: it could have been in the Labour fiefdom of Camden (where three high-rises were immediately evacuated). If the Tory administration that renovated Grenfell is guilty of murder, Labour councillors in Manchester and elsewhere must be attempted murderers. Perhaps that's too logical for the Left.

Actually, the buck for both Grenfell and Genoa stops in Brussels. On the former, I bow to the careful analysis of Richard North ( EU energy policy, driven by the obsession with climate change, has set insulation standards for residential buildings. But thermal efficiency has been prioritised over fire safety. While the EU is not responsible for the contract to refurbish Grenfell, its insulation rules undoubtedly influenced the decision to use Celotex RS5000, which is thinner yet 30% more efficient than other products. The tougher British standard BS8414 would have failed these combustible panels because it assesses them in use. Unlike the EU materials test, BS8414 is a system test. Despite several fires in tall buildings that were exacerbated by cladding, the EU made its thermal efficiency targets mandatory. By enforcing a regulatory framework based on flawed criteria, the EU, according to North, 'is as guilty as any party for the fire'.

As North argues, national governments are undermined by the EU's project of regulatory harmonisation, which is a tool for political integration. We have seen the consequences of pan-continental fudge in numerous scandals: Dutch eggs, horsemeat, breast implants and the hospital-acquired MRSA infection. But while lax regulations were a factor at Grenfell, the EU played a different role in Genoa. And unlike a few marginalised critics after the former incident, in the latter the EU was directly accused by the Italian government.

The story begins with the economic crisis of 2008, which struck the debt-ridden southern European nations. Commercial German banks had serious liabilities to Greece, and the EU was determined to protect the Euro and its supporting banking systems. The Greeks were bailed out, but at a substantial cost to other countries in the Eurozone. The Italians, struggling themselves with the global financial meltdown, were forced to contribute. Austerity was imposed, while German bankers kept their villas in the Bavarian Alps. In 2011 beancounter Mario Monti, never an elected politician, was appointed as prime minister, leading a technocratic and very unpopular government.

Silvio Berlusconi was a thorn in the side of the pro-EU mainstream parties, but he was no longer seen as the answer by an increasingly angry Italian electorate. The people wanted real change, not a narcissistic character whose record in government was unimpressive. And so they voted for true rebels: the anti-establishment Five Star and the League. The coalition has threatened a referendum on leaving the Euro, which has stagnated the Italian economy. Brussels-directed debt control, for the sake of the single currency, has restricted public spending in Italy.

The Italian government has had serious problems with corruption, but it must be acknowledged that this is a mountainous country with more bridges per head of population than most other EU member states. So it needs to spend beyond the limits set by the EU. The bridge at Genoa was one of hundreds of creaking concrete constructions from the 1960s.

The EU Commission responded angrily to Salvini's broadside. It has provided 2.5 billion Euros from its 2014-2020 budget for Italian transport infrastructure, through its structural and investment funds. Well, that's not a lot for a country that pays in much more than it gets back. Predictably, Europhile commentators are deriding the democratically-elected leadership as naïve demagogues, unfit for government. But the EU has fleeced Italy, while continuing to exercise fiscal control on Rome.

Could extra money from the EU have prevented the Genoa catastrophe? Probably not. But did meddling in national governance create the conditions for institutional neglect? The more the EU dictates what countries can and cannot do, the more likely another Grenfell or Genoa. It is not just the impracticalities of a one-size-fits-all approach; it is a Soros-inspired political idealism that puts ordinary people last in the queue. The EU hates populism but fails to understand why it has arisen.

More on EU madness on Twitter @CraeNiall

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