Letter from Italy

By Toby Abse

Mario Draghi’s new Italian government of national unity, sworn in on 13th February, has sought to present itself as much more  ‘green’ than its immediate predecessor, Giuseppe Conte’s second government (September 2019 – January 2021). Most notably, Draghi has created a new Ministry of Ecological Transition, which has a slightly expanded remit by comparison with the old environment ministry, since it is also supposed to oversee matters relating to Italy’s energy policy.

However, like much of the public image of Draghi and his government, these claims of heightened environmental concern are fraudulent. They have been advanced for two reasons. The first – international – one is that Italy’s Recovery and Resilience Plan has to conform to EU rules. The 209 billion euros in loans and grants secured by Conte at last July’s EU summit in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the so-called ‘frugal’ countries (Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Finland) have to be spent in a manner that fits in to the general guidelines for ‘Next Generation EU’, as the scheme popularly known as the Recovery Plan is officially called.  The main objectives of Next Generation EU are supposed to be ecological and digital transition. Needless to say, Draghi has also created a new Ministry for Digital Transition under Vittorio Colao, formerly managing director of Vodafone.

The second reason that Draghi has created a Ministry of Ecological Transition, in charge of the 37% of Recovery Plan funds allocated to ‘green’ objectives, is a more immediate domestic political one: to get the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S-Five Star Movement), the largest single grouping in the current Italian Parliament, to participate in the National Unity Government. Draghi knew that the populists would not be keen on joining a government closely identified with the Italian establishment that M5S has always claimed to oppose: its sudden but quite substantial entry into parliament in 2013 had been a direct response by angry sections of the electorate to the austerity policies of Mario Monti’s technocratic government, which had been backed by the mainstream parties of the centre left and right. 

A dose of greenwash

M5S was founded in 2009 on a largely environmental platform (most of the five symbolic stars represent environmental issues), even if it subsequently became obsessed with attacking La Casta(the political class) and backtracked on environmental concerns after it took governmental office in 2018 (e.g. failing to block the totally unnecessary, and environmentally destructive, Trans Adriatic Pipeline bringing gas from Azerbaijan). So Draghi in face-to-face negotiations with M5S founder Beppe Grillo promised to create a Ministry of Ecological Transition. The nebulous character of Draghi’s verbal assurances meant that Grillo was probably acting in good faith by incorporating a misleading reference to a ‘super ministry of ecological transition’ when he consulted M5S members before joining the coalition. In other words, it was a dose of greenwash that enabled Draghi to achieve his strategic goal of neutralising the largest potential parliamentary opposition to his government.

Dracula’s blood bank

The choice of Roberto Cingolani as the Minister for Ecological Transition is the final proof of Draghi’s lack of environment credibility, hardly surprising in a rabidly neo-liberal central banker whose interest in nature doesn’t extend much beyond his vast country estate in Umbria. Cingolani has spent the last couple of years as director of innovation in a firm now called Leonardo but formerly known as Finmeccanica. As Italy’s leading arms manufacturer, Leonardo has a thriving market in the Middle East, supplying the despots of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, plus Egypt’s military dictator, with the most uptodate weapons, often as useful for internal repression as for waging war against civilians in Yemen. In short, as the anti-establishment daily Il Fatto Quotidiano has pointed out, appointing Cingolani as Minister of Ecological Transition is like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. Nor was Cingolani’s pre-Leonardo record an encouraging one. From 2005 to 2018, he was director of the Istituto Italiano di Technologia (IIT), which had been set up by Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi’s economics minister, in 2003, in a bid to create a pro-business model of scientific research. IIT received 100 million euros a year at a time when public universities were being starved of research funding. In 2016, when the centrist prime minister Matteo Renzi gave 150 million euros to another wasteful outfit called Human Technopole, Cingolani was put in charge of that too. Since 2019, Renzi has been leader of the breakaway Italia Viva party, though he is now perhaps better known as a fervent admirer of Saudi Arabia’s murderous Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose Saudi Foundation pays him $80,000 a year as a board member. His own lack of interest in the environment is best illustrated by his staunch opposition to a plastic tax, not to mention the enthusiasm shown by his 2014-16 government for oil companies drilling in the Adriatic. During Cingolani’s management of IIT, 540 million euros of its funds went into various bank accounts and investments, including the dodgy bonds of Lehman Brothers. This outrageous gambling with taxpayers’ money brought Cingolani into conflict with Elena Cattaneo, who had been made a Life Senator for her contribution to scientific research. In 2016, Cattaneo mounted a spirited campaign to reclaim and redistribute this money to underfunded public sector research. In 2017, Cattaneo was able to prove that, during Cingolani’s period as IIT chief, her Wikipedia page had been modified by the IIT press office in order to discredit her. This sort of unscrupulous behaviour has made Cingolani very unpopular with the more principled members of Italy’s academic scientific community.

Toby Abse, a member of the Socialist Alliance and AGS national committees, is living under lockdown in Italy

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