venerdì, ottobre 21, 2005

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The Messina Bridge as it will look from Sicily.

I have been looking recently for more information about the new Messina Bridge as the contract has just been awarded to the civil engineering firm, Impregilo SpA . As so often is the case here, nothing is quite as it seems, so this will be another rather long item. Sorry about that.

The bridge itself is relatively straightforward to describe. It will be the longest suspension bridge ever built, stretching from the shores of mainland Italy in Calabria north of
Reggio Calabria, across the straits of Messina to Sicily, landing just north of the city of Messina itself. Even more exciting will be the fact of it being built in a famously earthquake-prone area, pretty close to an active volcano. The main stated objective of the bridge is to enable better communication and trade links to Sicily – although the unspoken aims include the political binding of Sicily to Italy (or is it the other way around?) as well as giving our erstwhile leader the photo opportunities that the new bridge inaugaration / ribbon-cutting / sod-digging presents, all in good time for the election next year.

I really can’t avoid bringing in the mafia into the story at this stage either. Everyone knows of the Sicilian
mafia – more accurately called Cosa Nostra. We know, of course, because we were all brought up with the American “cops & robbers” films and TV series. However, the more real threat to law and order these days is from the Calabrian mafia, called ‘Ndrangheta, as evidenced by the murder of Francesco Fortugno whilst going to vote in the recent election poll. The bridge linking Sicily with the mainland is, of course, passing from ‘Ndrangheta territory into Cosa Nostra territory. An interesting, if somewhat frightening prospect for the future – I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the project team for Impregilo negotiating local contracts.

Although, having said that, perhaps Impregilo are a better choice than we might first suppose, depending on your viewpoint of course.

Impregilo are a huge company, claiming to employ around 25,000 people around the world at the moment. With an annual turnover of around €3 billion, they should be a very strong contributor to the project. But, they have been
having problems .

Due to a range of
problems, their position at the end of last December (2004) was that they were in debt to the tune of €1.162 billion. After some major restructuring of their debts and changing its senior management pretty radically, they had improved their financial position so that, in June of this year (2005) their debt had fallen to a “mere” €653.9 million. You’re impressed, aren’t you.

Now, back to thinking about how Impregilo are qualified to deal with the
‘Ndrangheta, Stidda and the Cosa Nostra. They certainly have experience of bribery and corruption. The contract that they undertook in Lesotho for the construction of a huge dam project was subject of an investigation into fraud and corruption that led to Impregilo facing five charges for bribery. Impregilo had been caught paying $750,000 into the Swiss bank account of Jacobus Michiel du Plooy, a businessman from the small Free State town of Ficksburg. Fortunately for du Plooy, he pleaded guilty and was fined $500,000 as well as having the bribe money sequestered. I say fortunate because the chap that du Plooy had paid, Masupha Ephraim Sole, the former boss of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, received a prison sentence of 15 years. A serious amount of prison time. Impregilo Failed to impress the British courts when they appealed the award made against them, even though they took their case to the House of Lords – a very expensive business for them.

That experience hasn’t stood them too well in projects they have been involved with in Italy recently though. Part of the reason given for their financial plight earlier this year was because of problems they experienced with the building of the refuse facilities near to Naples which was, for Impregilo at least, as big a disaster as a company can experience. It is still unresolved as I write. Of course, Impregilo didn’t have either ‘Ndrangheta, Stidda or Cosa Nostra to deal with on that project. It was the Camorra they obviously fell foul of.

Now, run by me one more time the story of how
Impregilo will manage the Messina bridge project again?

Bridge across Troubled Waters

Nun sacciu, nun vidi, nun ceru e si ceru durmiv

giovedì, ottobre 20, 2005

Is this the start of the New Start?

Adriano Celentano - a true Italian.

I would like to just say how much I was moved tonight whilst watching a brand new TV show on Rai uno, RockPolitik (in fact, I am still watching it as I type). It was as though I was observing a beautiful woman shedding the sackcloth and ashes she had been forced to wear for the past few years. Bravi Italiani! I feel privileged to have witnessed the shedding of the shackles which have been chaining freedom of speech for the past few years. I can’t express my admiration and respect enough for Adriano Celentano and the entire production team at RAI, the state TV service that has fought and fought to remain independent from the ethic of mediocrity that has pervaded Italy for the last 10 years or so. You have, all of you, taken a brave step to reclaim the heart and soul of the real Italy again. Bravi.

See you all next Thursday - unless a greater evil steps in and bans you. Again.


Just to add to this post, as I thought would happen, our leader lept to the attack through his mouthpieces, denouncing the TV show as being "not entertainment but political". How predictable.

Some comments in todays press (in Italian) include:L'Unita and the Corriere della Sera

click to enter forums (in Italian)

martedì, ottobre 18, 2005

What's Up in Italy Today?

Romano Prodi in Wales

There have been several issues of interest happening here in Italy over the past week. The week started with an election. It was actually a referendum for the public to elect the leader of the centre-left coalition of the many left-wing, liberal and eco-sensitive political groupings and parties in order to fight – and most likely win at this moment in time - the coming elections which, Berlusconi has just announced, will be held next April 9th.

The whole election was a very “Italian” business, of course, taking a couple of hours – pleasant chatty hours it must be said – out of my Sunday. I had a voting tent just at the bottom of the street in which I live – about 50 metres at most – although I was actually “assigned” to a voting tent about a kilometre away from here. Still, it was a nice day and the walk was pleasant. It was very noticeable that there very few young people getting involved though, with most people voting seeming to be in their middle and later years.

The actual turn-out for the vote was amazingly high with an estimated 4 million making their voice heard in what is, after all, only a party leadership poll. It was the higher than expected turn-out which caused the minor hiccups with the polling systems, with only around 1 million people originally expected to turn out to vote. The 400% increase in numbers took everyone a little by surprise – although, I remember the chaos during the last general election, when the queues stretched back so far that the polls had to be kept open longer so that the queuing voters could cast their vote.

The votes gave Romano Prodi a clear win, with around 75% of the votes cast in his favour. Prodi has managed to keep himself clear of party politics so far, belonging to no political party at all currently. This has, it could be argued, given him a far better ability to bind together the various political groups under a single banner, much as Berlusconi has managed to juggle the right-wing parties under his own apolitical party banner. Of course, if Berlusconi has his way, Prodi will soon be forced to either join one of the existing parties or else form a party of his own under which to tackle Berlusconi – as Berlusconi himself did some 10 years ago when he was trying to distance himself from the tainted political arena of the time, after the “Clean Hands” issues that affected Italian politics so badly back then.

It must all be a bit of a concern to our Silvio, seeing as how he has already lost one general election to Romano Prodi back in 1996.

Romano Prodi in more serious mood

Other than that, we have heard from our great leader that he now considers debate about the electoral law changes, "..beyond the time limit, now that the measure has been passed by the House". That’s that one sorted out then, isn't it.

The new (for the third time) Finance Minister, Giulio Tremonti has made several utterances, saying that Italy's public accounts are not in total chaos, which is apparently proven by the unexpected success of the recent issue of thirty-year Italian State bonds. “At the beginning of this week, we issued bonds due to expire in thirty years, which can be a reliable marker of long-term confidence. The result was satisfactory”. I always notice words like “satisfactory” when uttered by a politician.

Tremonti also said that energy firms in Italy will “no longer be paying a tax on polluting emissions”, adding that “no replacement taxes will be introduced”. That just after being censured by the EU for breaching EU environment laws too. Tremonti then went on to say that he considered there are "objective elements of recovery" in our economy, adding that yesterday's figures from Istat were "fairly good". Fairly good? There must be another reason for Berlusconi to have said later in Rome that Istat's figures do not “represent the real Italian economic situation”, going on to make it worse by saying - "I don't know what we can say to make it understood that the economy is not going so badly, above all that the GDP figures are not credible".

That must be the reason why Tremonti announced a decree had been passed by the government containing amendments to public spending measures that "is made up of three articles, the first one laying down the cuts agreed on" whereby public spending is going to be cut by 30% “except in sectors like security and investments”. Perhaps he and Silvio hadn’t had their little chat before Silvio spoke up? But then again, Silvio needs to blame something for the erosion of the financial position that Italy is now in. The words "Euro", "EMU" and "Prodi" all come instantly to mind as probable excuses that will be used before April.

Finally, an item in La Repubblica claims that Italy's antitrust authority is questioning Mediaset's various nine-year contracts with leading football clubs for the rights to show games on the Mediaset digital TV service. Not, of course, that Silvio has anything whatsoever to do with Mediaset now - it is merely his family that controls it nowadays. This action is seen as going against government subsidies to promote sales of digital TV set top boxes. Yes, the government actually subsidises digital TV services. Funny that. It is almost as though the Prime Minister had a hand in it.

The Boys