EU hits back at Italy govt over bridge disaster comments

Brussels (AFP) –


The European Union pushed back Thursday against Italy's populist government over the deadly collapse of a bridge in Genoa, saying that it had given Rome billions of euros to fix infrastructure.

The riposte came after Italy's hardline eurosceptic Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accused Brussels in the wake of the disaster that killed at least 38 people of prioritising budgets over safety.

"It is very human to look for somebody to blame, when terrible accident happens as #Genova. Still, good to look at facts," EU budget commissioner Guenther Oettinger said on Twitter.

He said that in the seven years from 2014 to 2020 Italy was set to receive 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion) for roads and trains, 12 billion euros in so-called structural funds to help poorer regions, and had been given the green light to receive 8.5 billion euros in national spending.

The European Commission -- the powerful executive arm of the 28-nation European Union -- said Italy had repeatedly benefitted from Brussels being prepared to relax its budgetary rules.

"In respect of the terrible nature of things that have happened, that's all we have been saying until now. However we think the time has come to make a few things clear," commission spokesman Christian Spahr told a daily briefing.

A European Commission statement said that it would "not engage in any political finger pointing".

Far-right leader Salvini, who is also co-deputy prime minister, had however firmly pointed the finger at Brussels over the disaster, even as wider attention turned towards the company responsible for the bridge.

"If external commitments stop us spending money that we need for the safety of schools and motorways, we have to ask ourselves whether to respect these commitments or put the safety of Italians first. Obviously, I choose the second option," Salvini said on Tuesday.

On Wednesday he called for Brussels to exclude safety spending from the Stability and Growth Pact -- the budgetary rules that have governed Europe since the financial crisis.

"Spending that saves lives, jobs and the right to health must not be part of rigid calculations and of rules imposed by Europe," Salvini said.

His fellow deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the populist Five Star movement, echoed Salvini, saying that "Europe can say what it wants but we are not asking -- we are demanding. People's lives are at stake."

The A10 motorway on which the collapsed bridge lies is part of the trans-European transport network, a development plan for infrastructure drawn up in response to the 2008 EU road safety directive, the European Commission's Spahr said.

National authorities are responsible for ensuring that the rules are followed, he added.