Can Europe Make It?

The Expo is a dark window into Italy's future

Mafia, McDonalds and youth exploitation: The Milan World Expo, opening on May Day, prepares a new generation for the years to come.

Jamie Mackay
1 May 2015

Today sees the launch of the Milan Expo, an international exposition of food and agriculture which will take place in Italy’s financial capital over the next six-months. This year’s theme, ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’ will see farmers, artisans and entrepreneurs from around the world set-up stall to sell their wares alongside stage-shows, concerts and talks by a roster of esteemed futurologists. This is a real-world pop-up show of all the things that might normally be encountered in Wired magazine: avant-garde art, gourmet cooking and sci-fi tech, all on display in a gargantuan ‘agro-park’ which is expected to host 20 million visitors.

On the surface an event like this might seem exactly what Italy needs to snap itself out of an austerity-induced paralysis and, as some hope, could perhaps help erode the nation’s proud cultural conservatism. If these are the goals, the Expo could hardly come at a better time. While productivity continues to decline (in line with a still-deepening twenty year trend) and growth flattens once again, few would deny that Italy is a country in dire need of large-scale public investment. In the words of the stoic Prime-Minister Matteo Renzi:

The Expo is not simply a fair but a huge occasion through which Italy can reflect on itself and accept the challenges of the future […] It will be the Expo with the highest ever number of foreign delegations and so the highest ideal through which Italy can say it is not just a land of the past”

Despite the optimism of the Premier, however, reaction to the Expo across Italy has been one of general suspicion, ranging from the usual languid shrugging to outright rage. The bid was won on 31 March 2008 just months before the Lehman Brothers crisis; almost immediately, then, this grand honour was seen as a dead weight. Despite widespread calls to call off the event in light of austerity and cuts to public spending, the political instability of this period meant that no-one had the agency to make such a decision. And so, by default, the Italian state continued to spend, spend and spend. At the time of writing, the total expense of the project remains a mystery, but the Italian pavilion alone is expected to cost €92m. For most, then, the overwhelming anxiety now is that this vast investment will not produce tangible benefits for the country. Italy is stuck: overwhelmingly opposed to the chaotic way in which the Expo has been managed, but so too to any active attempts to disrupt it.

Nonetheless, today’s opening – coinciding with the annual MayDay celebrations in Milan – has been met with large-scale opposition. At the time of writing tens of thousands are gathering, ready to march against the project. Some have accused those on the streets of failing to acknowledge the “new kinds of investment” which are required for the country to thrive in a new age of globalization, others have simply branded opponents as reactionary old-fashioned socialists. Yet those challenging the Expo do have a clear andcontemporary message: that in the age of web 3.0 events like this – expensive and based on the prioritization of capital over human beings – are alsounnecessary, the phenomena of a bygone era which even in their heyday only benefited the rich.

What, though, are the specific grievances of the No Expo campaign? And what do they tell us about Italy’s current attempt to move beyond the crisis?


The mafia have been involved with the Expo from day one. Last year seven people were arrested in connection with ‘bid-rigging’, which, as this 2010 documentary shows, was most likely organized by the Calabrian ndrangheta. This southern mafia group, who have had a foothold in Milan for more than a decade, has thrived by siphoning money from public construction projects (including the Expo infrastructure) and by laundering its profits from the drugs trade into front businesses. These are endemic problems, but there is legitimate concern that beyond offering a market for gorgonzola and parmigiano, the Expo will be used as a platform through which this organisation might secure new drug contracts.

The government has acknowledged this risk, and limply promised to host an event that will “guarantee the respect of legality and transparency”. Given that the state itself is embroiled in its own corruption scandal ‘Mafia Capitale’ (which amongst other things has revealed that the organized crime groups in Rome paid-off public officials to get far-right politicians into positions of power) this is rather hard to stomach. Their own facts, moreover, give little indication of a mafia-free event. One in eight companies who applied to work at the Expo have been banned from doing so on the basis of suspected criminal activity, while estimates still suggest that there organised crimes groups may have around €100m of investments in the event (this figure is likely to be much higher).

Precarious work

The government initially promised that the Expo would provide 70,000 jobs. The actual number is most likely to be one third of this (the vast majority being seasonal and temporary work). It is the treatment of young people, however, which has attracted the most controversy. Positions are being advertised which pay as little as €500 per month and the vast majority will be working as volunteers, including some school children who have been forced to participate as part of their curriculum. Officials defend this on the basis that the Expo is a high-profile training event that will look great on a CV and provide ample opportunities for international networking and practicing language skills (though if the English on the Expo website is anything to go by they won’t learn much).

Despite an overwhelming effort to cover up the country’s economic woes, youth unemployment in Italy remains at 47%. And this is no surprise. In direct contrast to his predecessor Enrico Letta, who described this problem as “keeping him up at night’”, Matteo Renzi is happy to admit that solving this is not a priority. Indeed, it is all going according to plan. As I have argued elsewhere this government’s reforms, and in particular the Jobs Act which was approved earlier this year, will cut the red tape for global companies, enabling them to fire staff more easily andoffer mini-contracts, similar to those available in Germany. Unemployment will eventually go down as the reforms go through but the work that is available will be precarious with little chance of career progression.


The Expo shows a model of Italy that rewards corruption and crime, and exploits the young. But its supporters, including those in Generation-Y, are quick to emphasise its promises to help ecological business and small businesses. As one ‘Expo-optimist’ put it to VICE’s Leonardo Bianchi “this is not the classic Italy of the seaside, but the Italy of business, of knowing how to do things”. At the core of such sentiments is a desire to celebrate Italy and Italian produce at a time in which the country needs to bolster its reputation in the world.

Given the above ambitions it might seem strange that the venue is a giant cement platform of 1.1 million square feet, constructed on a green site which is now home to a purpose-built concrete canal. As opponents have pointed-out, Milan is a city that is used to hosting large-scale fashion events and already has a plethora of inner-city spaces that could have been used for the Expo. Instead the organisers have built an expensive new suburb on the periphery of the city serviced by tens of kilometeres of new motorways. Unsurprisingly given the presence of the ndrangheta there has also been a spike in eco-crime with waste from the construction projects continuing to crop-up in quarries and the city’s many rivers.

These points are symptomatic of poor infrastructure planning, corruption and the power of property speculation, but there is a more fundamental ethical question regarding the hypocrisy of an event that valorizes the earth and speaks in the language of ‘small producers’ (even permaculture projects) and yet welcomes Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Eni, Enel, Pioneer-Dupont, Selex-Es as its sponsors and ‘associated partners’. Not only are all of these companies directly responsible for irreversible environmental degradation – particularly in the global south – they pose a direct market threat to the small producers who are supposedly the heroes of the entire initiative.


Today’s demonstration is representative of much wider public opposition. On the one hand it is moment of collective memory, an affirmation that the scandals that have accompanied this project will not be swept aside to the sound of Andrea Bocceli’s velvet tenor. But for young Italians in particular, today is primarily about challenging the version of the future that is promised by Renzi and his government. While there are supporters to be found, they do appear to be in the minority, and the question of how easily this generation will be socialised into the desired model of dutiful precarious and temporary work remains an open one. As the steel gates open, however, it is important to remember that The Expo is ultimately a celebration of precisely this process: a chance for Italian capitalism to prove it has grown up and that its kids will stand in line.

Originally published on Precarious Europe.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData