The news this week has been dominated by the collapse of the Ponte Morandi in the Italian city of Genoa, which has claimed the lives of 43 people. Two hundred meters of solid concrete fell over 45 meters, leading to one of the more biblical disasters Europe has seen this year. The Italian state has led tributes: it organized a state funeral for some of the victims, which was attended both President Mattarella and Prime Minister Conte. However, the real voice of the government, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, was quick to shift the blame on the European Union for constraining their budget. The EU responded that spending priorities can be set for various things including infrastructure and emphasized that they were intent on providing additional support to the bridge collapse. Indeed, the Italian government itself can be seen as responsible for not allocating enough resources to failing roads.
This extra backing is very upstanding from their point of view, but perhaps also necessary, as the EU has committed heavily to various infrastructure projects across the continent. Between 2014-2020, Brussels has already pledged 16 billion euros. For the Union, internal connectivity is a key tool in maintaining cohesion between member states.
The most recent event has reaffirmed the notion that the quality of these endeavours is often lacking. Reinforced concrete has proven to have a shorter lifespan than expected due to traffic increasing both in volume and in weight. This, compounded with continued exposure to the elements, has led to its durability decreasing. As temperatures rise, and Europe’s population continues to grow, these problems will only get worse.
As early as 1999, the EU noted that 30% of its road bridges were defective, mainly due to corrosion of reinforced concrete. Many of these bridges need replacing, which can be more economical in the long run than continuously applying bandages to a structural wound. As recent as 2016, Antonio Brencich, a specialist in concrete, claimed that Ponte Morandi needed to be replaced, a request that fell on deaf ears.
Unfortunately, these problems are not solvable by the amount of money that both the European Union and the states themselves are spending on infrastructure. Additionally, the EU has been running into obstacles in terms of meeting deadlines. The elaborate Brenner Base Tunnel on the Austro-Italian border, part of a wider project to link Berlin with Sicily in one direct connection, has already been pushed from 2022 to 2025, meaning that the sums provided are not enough.
It gets worse for the EU due to Brexit taking away a healthy contributor to projects on the European mainland. The UK is the joint-biggest contributor to the European Investment Bank (EIB), which funds many projects across the continent, and this stake would immediately cease in the case of a no-deal Brexit. The EU directly funds 40% of the Brenner Base Tunnel, and a sizeable contribution would no doubt come from across the British Channel. While the UK will inevitably have to keep spending money on EU projects until it formally leaves in March 2019, and has explored continued participation in certain schemes, it is certainly feasible that the EU will have to ask for bigger contributors from its member states.
This means that subsidies to promote key decaying infrastructure (much of which is in Eastern Europe, 81 have already been approved in Poland), will need a cash influx from poorer nations where this problem is most prevalent. Making an economically under-equipped nation undertake a grandiose public project on itself is risky: the EU’s neighbour across the Bosporus provides a contemporary and striking example.
Much of the current financial crisis going on in Turkey was caused by the government embarking on lavish projects to improve the country’s internal connections. Foreign debt had to be accrued when the government could not provide enough funds, and the Lira is now suffering as a result. If not executed properly, the projects can thus torpedo a growing country’s economy in little time.
Another issue related to Britain leaving European infrastructure projects is that many of the Union’s biggest architectural firms are British, and will no doubt play a lesser role in future tenders on the mainland. British influence in European endeavours has had a lasting impact; major architectural wonders such as the Channel Tunnel and the Millau Viaduct in Southern France remind us of this. The EU will have to potentially find new partnerships to finish their projects in some cases, as the UK’s exit from the customs union will mean that British firms will find more difficulty in moving manpower from Britain to the mainland.
Ultimately, this outlook is rather bleak. Europe has gone all-in on making its areas accessible from Lisbon to Tallinn, yet if the existing infrastructure is already incapable of handling the ever-increasing volume of traffic, then the soon-to-be underfunded projects will have to be finished with immaculate quality (and with far less British support). To be sure, most if not all regions of the world are suffering from decaying infrastructure, but with Brexit looming, the EU especially will have to improvise a solution. There is a chance that Britain will retain its role in the EIB and continue to provide monetary support. However, in the event of a hard Brexit, it will be upon the cash-strapped nations of Eastern Europe to find a new financier to bankroll their new roads.