When I think of a ‘Universal Exhibition’, its grandiloquent title evokes images of positivist confidence, prosperity, industrialisation, and well-dressed ladies and gentlemen strolling along large Parisian boulevards.
Hence, my reaction to Milan hosting the 2015 Universal Exhibition – or EXPO, as it is now known – was initially something halfway between amusement and dread. The amusement faded quickly though, once I saw the official website advertising the events happening in Italy during the EXPO – verybello.it, a title that might have sounded ‘young’ and ‘fresh’ to its creators, but plainly ridiculous to me and many other observers.
What about the webpages and leaflets translated into English using Google translator, with hilarious results? What about the official posters, featuring transparent and levitating people, which seemed to be designed by a 14-year-old messing around with Photoshop and have – quite predictably – been largely mocked on Twitter and Facebook?
According to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the 2015 Expo in Milan will be “up to the standards of Italy’s image”. Which standards is the PM referring to? If he is talking about the bribery, inefficiency and sloppiness that have characterised the event to date, he isn’t setting the bar very high. Last year, for instance, Italy scored 69th in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), together with Swaziland, Romania and Senegal.
In May 2014, seven people were arrested for corruption charges. All have been indicted for activities related to the EXPO: one – Angelo Paris – was a senior manager of the event; two – Antonio Rognoni and Enrico Maltauro – are building contractors; and four – Luigi Grillo, Sergio Mattozzo, Primo Greganti and Gianstefano Frigerio – are politicians. Both Greganti and Firgerio, by the way, were involved in the 1992-1994 maxi-trial ‘Mani Pulite’ (Clean Hands) that unveiled the corrupted network of funding to Italian political parties. Leopards cannot change their spots, or so it seems.
Renzi’s statement is, to say the least, open to interpretation, and his naivety is baffling. Did he really think that years of trials, scandals, corruption charges, soaring costs and delays that marked the run-up to the event would have gone unnoticed?
A few months and a new administration later, another storm hit EXPO. The manager of the Italian pavilion Antonio Acerbo and constructors Giandomenico Maltauro and Andrea Castellotti were indicted for bid rigging and bribery in October 2014. In March, further probes found a national-scale network of corruption that covered all of the ‘Grandi Opere’ (literally, Great Works – that is, publicly funded infrastructure projects). Acerbo was found guilty of corrupting the allocation of contracts not only for the EXPO, but also for a long series of development plans, including highways and health service structures. This time, Stefano Perrotta, the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, Maurizio Lupi, and Ercole Incalza, the ubiquitous public servant who managed major government-funded projects since the 70s, have been subject to investigations.
Once in the cage, the canaries started singing. The transcripts of the interrogations revealed a grim picture. “It’s a rotten system, but if you don’t comply, you don’t work… I’ve done it for my business, to keep it going and protect my employees,” confessed Enrico Maltauro. Berlusconi, with his twenty-year-long, scandal-laden, self-interested regime, is the one to blame, said the constructor. “I’m almost 60 and I have seen enough of this system that forces you to take money to work. Because of this (Italy) needs a generational change. The old generation is rotten and corrupt”.
This is no real news for Italy, a country in which 1 in 8 businesses is suspected of involvement with the Mafia, and 222 parliamentarians were investigated for corruption between 1992 and 1994. Is this enough for your daily supply of stereotypes about Italians? Not so quick. What about their quintessential laziness? Seek no more! Little before the official start of the event, only 15 of the 80 pavilions were ready, 3 out of 35 development areas were completed and water and electricity were still not running. By May 1st, one of the 20 tube stations of the new M4 line will be open; the channels ‘Vie d’Acqua’ won’t be anywhere near finished – actually, works may be abandoned soon; and only a few stretches of the new highways will be operative.
To shield the unfinished structures to the eyes of press and visitors, funds have been allocated to create a ‘camouflage’. Needless to say, even the plans for this project are proceeding at snail’s pace. The ‘camouflage’ will account for a further €1m, which will raise the already exorbitant cost of the event. With 13 countries pulling out because of the unsustainable cost of participation and only 9 of the 24 million tickets needed to cover the expenses purchased so far, the burden of EXPO-related debts has become even heavier on Italy. So far, the event has required more than €2bn of taxpayers’ money, but if we include the costs for building related infrastructure such as railways and highways, total expenses could top €13bn.
Whether Italy will end EXPO with both its reputation and its public purse intact is a question that can be answered only seven months from now. But hopes are fading, especially for those who aspired to a concrete benefit from the event. Only one thousand of the 250 people who applied for a job at EXPO will get a position. And even then, the risk is that they will end up working for free, in exchange for ‘professional experience’.
Looking at the run-up to EXPO from my pragmatic, efficient home in London, I wonder whether this is the image that Italy wants to offer the world. I see a chaotic, corrupt political class trying to come to terms with a country whose resources are being sucked to the last drop. How long, I wonder, will it take us to lose those last crumbs of international respect that we still enjoy? The EXPO was presented as a model for future exhibitions, a new frontier for the sharing economy, an intellectual and commercial hub to address hunger and famine across borders and, most importantly, a fresh start for Italian entrepreneurship. But all it looks like today, is a grandiloquent vanity fair.