By Annie Magnus
At a time when the airline industry is crumbling in Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is focusing on other means of connections. He wants to build a bridge - not that we haven't heard that from politicians before. But while others eventually say, 'thanks, but no thanks,' Berlusconi smiles widely and says yes. He has given the go-ahead to start building the world's longest suspension bridge. It will be a grandiose national project. It will also be to Italy what was snubbed in Alaska: a bridge to nowhere.
This one will stretch more than two miles over the stormy Strait of Messina and link the toe of the boot-shaped Italian mainland to its closest island, Sicily. It will connect one poor region to an even poorer island. But is the project worthwhile?
Supporters of the idea believe it will help Sicily transport its fruit and vegetable production to Calabria at a faster and more efficient pace and thereby help its poor economic state. But critics claim that money needed to construct the suspension should first be spent on proper infrastructure in Sicily before the bridge is seriously discussed. If the government concentrated instead on making roads more efficient, critics argue, truck drivers would be able to reach the coast quicker and reduce the overall time for transportation to get to the mainland - at a fraction of the bridge's cost.
It's no small cost, either: an estimated $7.85 billion. The Italian economy, doing no better than most other economies these days, cannot support the project through government funds alone. Help to finance the plan will have to come from other sources. Connections are once again a key word here. Berlusconi has connections in a variety of sectors. They are rich friends who would be willing to donate some of their money towards this project - donations, speculators believe, that may not be all that clean. And funds, they likewise suspect, that will return to dirty pockets once revenue comes in return. It could very well help improve economic conditions for parts of the Sicilian population, yes, but it's doubtful that it will help those who need it most. It seems ironic, then, that at a time when the government is supposedly trying to crack down on mafia, it wants to build a bridge that will lead directly into their hands.
Paradoxes loom high in Italy these days. This is politics under Silvio Berlusconi.
Annie Magnus is a graduate student in the IR/Conflict Management program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.