Can Europe Make It?

How the 5-Star Movement is losing support over broken green promises

More than 50 pages were dedicated to the environment in the M5S electoral programme, fruit of an online consultation with the movement's members. But in the "government contract" sealed with Salvini, it was down to three pages.

Caterina Semeraro
4 May 2019
Raffaele Cataldi, ex Ilva worker and member of the Committee of Free and Thinking Citizens and Workers
Raffaele Cataldi, ex Ilva worker and member of the Committee of Free and Thinking Citizens and Workers

Ignazio D’Andria is in no doubt at all about the matter. When Alessandro Di Battista, one of the most prominent members of the ruling anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, came to Taranto to hold a rally two years ago he was welcomed as a hero, but now he would be kicked out.

Ignazio is the owner of Minibar, the main bar in Tamburi, the blue collar district that backs onto Ilva, Europe’s largest steelworks. What was once the ancient capital of Magna Grecia is now one of the most polluted industrial areas of Italy. The 5-Star Movement won almost 50 per cent of the votes here in last year's general election with the promise to close the 15.000-hectare plant, which 60 years after its foundation has been the cause of both death and environmental disaster.

But one year after the 5SM came to power, that promise has not been kept, prompting the local representatives of the anti-establishment movement in the city council to resign. “People feel betrayed, they will never vote for them again”, says Ignazio, whose bar is just a few meters away from the industrial site and its 200 chimneys. “The air here is lethal, those who can go away but those who cannot are trapped”, he says pointing outside to the empty square.

In 2010, the local council issued an order that prohibited children from playing outside due to soil contamination. More recently two schools have been closed on health grounds. According to a study by the Higher Health Institute published last year, children born in Taranto are 54 per cent more likely to develop cancer than kids living elsewhere in the southern region of Puglia. On February 25, thousands of people marched through the city to remember the children who died from pollution-related diseases. “We are being legally poisoned here”, says Massimo Battista, himself an ex-Ilva worker. In June 2017 he was elected city councillor with the 5SM but decided to leave the party after the Ilva plant was taken over by ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steelmaker, last September. “When Beppe Grillo and Alessandro di Battista came to Taranto they promised to close the plant, decontaminate and reconvert the area. They got plenty of votes because of that promise, but nothing has happened”, says Massimo.

Playground - In 2010, the local council issued an order that prohibited children from playing outside because of soil contamination
Playground - In 2010, the local council issued an order that prohibited children from playing outside because of soil contaminationNone

On the contrary, the situation is worsening. According to the environmentalist association, Peacelink, which constantly monitors the air quality in the city, cancer-causing chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (Pah) increased 195 per cent between January and February 2019 compared to the same period in 2018. Last February M5S leader and labour minister, Luigi Di Maio, assured people that the government had provided the plant with modern technologies able to reduce toxic emissions by 20 per cent. “Our data show that this is not true”, says Alessandro Marescotti, president of Peacelink, whose association was one of the first to shed light on the lethal health consequences of Ilva industrial activity.

In an interview with Corriere della Sera released last September Di Maio said that the tender through which the previous government assigned the plant to Arcelor Mittal could not be revoked. “We got the best result possibile in the worst possible conditions”, he contended. But according to environmental activists the only real obstacle is the lack of political will. “The government could have revoked the decree issued by the previous government which delays ArcelorMittal's transition to eco-friendly production by 2023 and grants the corporation legal immunity from prosecution. But it didn’t”, says Alessandro Marescotti.

Last January the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for pollution at the Ilva steel plant. The Court described the clean-up plan agreed as “extremely slow” and accused national authorities of failing to protect citizens. “Our generation is marked, but we have to save the present of our children and the future of our grandchildren”, says Raffaele Cataldi, member of the Committee of Free and Thinking Citizens and Workers, a local association formed by Ilva workers and Taranto residents to demand health and jobs. “Many of us voted 5SM in last year's general election but our expectations have been thwarted. They call themselves the government of change but they are acting in line with the governments that preceded them”, he complains.

"They call themselves the government of change but they are acting in line with the governments that preceded them”, he complains.

Since its foundation in 2009 the 5SM put environmental issues among the top priorities of its political agenda. More than 50 pages were dedicated to the chapter on the environment in the M5S electoral programme, the fruit of an online consultation with the movement's members. But in the "government contract" sealed with the far-right League last May the chapter on "the environment, the green economy and zero waste” only covers three pages.

“This is no surprise”, says Stefano Ciafani, national head of Italy's environmental lobby Legambiente. “The 5SM allied itself with a party that is anti-environment par excellence and that would just say yes to any project, regardless of its usefulness”.

In an interview with Corriere della Sera released last July Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party, insisted that it was “unthinkable” to close the Ilva plant and that it must continue to produce.

Via Orsini, the main street in Tamburi, the blue collar district that backs onto Ilva
Via Orsini, the main street in Tamburi, the blue collar district that backs onto IlvaNone

Taranto residents are not the only ones to feel betrayed. Last October the government approved a pipeline project completing the Southern Gas Corridor bringing gas from Azerbaijan into the small Puglia seaside town of San Foca, a project the 5Stars had promised to stop. The southern region of Puglia was a reservoir of votes for the 5Stars in last year’s parliamentary elections but “all this will have consequences”, says Massimo. “The biggest winner next time will be abstention”.

All the photos were taken by the author.

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