Five Star Movement has abandoned its promises to protect Italy’s environment: activists

Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) made the environment one of its main campaign themes in 2018. But eight months after coming to power in a populist coalition with the hard-right League, it has little to show for it, say environmental activists.

Five Star Movement has abandoned its promises to protect Italy's environment: activists
The Ilva steel plant in Taranto, which the M5S promised to turn into a clean energy park. Photo: Alfonzo Di Vincenzo/AFP

READ ALSO: Understanding Italy’s Five Star Movement

“We expected much more from them in terms of climate and the environment,” admits Stefano Ciafani, national head of Italy’s environmental lobby Legambiente.

No fewer than 52 pages were dedicated to the chapter on the environment in the M5S electoral programme, the fruit of a wide-ranging consultation online with the movement’s members. Between the general election in March, and the drawing up of a “government contract” with the League at the end of May, “the environment, the green economy and zero waste” was cut to three pages. 

“Those who do not respect the environment do not respect themselves. We must… put the ecological issue at the centre of politics,” the contract read.

But the toxic mix of Italy’s colossal public debt and an economic downturn saw both parties prioritise their flagship measures — pensions and an income support plan — over the environment.

READ ALSO: ‘We breathe in poison’: Why the Po Valley is one of the most polluted places in Italy

Photo: Nasa/AFP

Funds cut

It was a familiar scenario: according to a WWF report, “in the last ten years, resources for the environment ministry have been cut in half” in Italy, from €1.65 billion in 2008 to €880 million in 2018.

While the M5S had promised to pour in resources, the budget is set to be slashed once again in 2019.

“The high expectations raised by the Five Star Movement during the election campaign as regards the environment, energy and climate have been dashed somewhat,” Ciafani says. “This government’s policies are geared to addressing three topics — immigration, pensions and income support,” he said.

“When the M5S was in favour of protecting the environment, it was ideological; it actually supported protests against any industrial project,” Ciafani said. “But now that they are in government they are faced with their responsibilities and are forced to make proposals, which they have never done.”

READ ALSO: These are the 55 most polluted towns in Italy

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Premature deaths

The Movement has had to swallow a bitter pill in accepting the steel giant ArcelorMittal takeover of Italian steelmaker Ilva. It had promised voters the site in Taranto in southern Italy — one of the most polluted in Europe — would be shut down and transformed into a renewable energy park.

The air pollution figures across the country make for gloomy reading, with “90,000 premature deaths due to smog” a year, according to the environment ministry.

Italy comes bottom in Europe for the number of inhabitants living in areas where air pollution limits are exceeded, according to the European Environment Agency. 

READ ALSO: Italian steel plant blamed for spike in child cancer cases

Photo: Alfonso Di Vincenzo/AFP

BY AFP’s Ljubomir Milasin

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EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”