Amid the splendour of Michelangelo’s architectural innovations at the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill, delegates from six European countries signed the Treaty of Rome on 25 March 1957. The treaty, which included the articles that founded the European Investment Bank, was “a declaration of future good intentions,” according to one historian. For two weeks, we are publishing a series of stories to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the treaty—one for each decade of the EIB story. These are stories of how the EIB helped turn good intentions into reality.
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Let us start this story of the six decades of the European Investment Bank with a project that began 2 200 years ago and was finally brought to completion only in our own decade.
Crossing the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines between the cities of Florence and Bologna has always been a challenge. The mountain ridges shaped the history of Italy—and the design of the country’s road system. They were a barrier to Hannibal, the Carthaginian military commander, whose forces ran into serious difficulties in the marshes of the River Arno when he crossed the Apennines and came down to Pistoia and Fiesole in 217 BC. The first attempts to create a true road connecting the areas north of the Apennines to the south did not take shape until the Roman Consul Gaius Flaminius established the “Flaminia Minor” in 189 BC. It was a route for military use that went from Claternae, near Bologna, to Arezzo, south of Florence. Flaminius aimed to create a quick means of communication and control over the territories of Emilia and Romagna, which Rome had recently conquered.
The consul’s contribution, however, never reached the status of the other consular roads, the high-speed motorways of the Roman era. Probably this was due to the problems experienced by travellers at high elevations as the road passed through the Apennines. In fact, it was no longer marked in the Tabula Peutingeriana, an ancient Roman map drawn up in 360 AD to show all the military roads of the Roman Empire, including details of stopover points, distances from cities and the courses of rivers. The absence of the Flaminia Minor from the Tabula indicates that the road had fallen out of use.
Not until the Autostrada del Sole project of the late 1950s and early 1960s did a highway link forge its way through the Apennines between Bologna and Florence. The A1 was a vital economic move for Italy, a country which is everywhere bounded by formidable natural boundaries in the form of the Alps, the Apennines and the sea. The Autostrada joined Milan with Naples, via Rome and Florence. Prime Minister Aldo Moro officially opened it in 1964. By then, the European Investment Bank was at work in financing links and highways to expand on the A1. These roads were key to the early years of the EIB. They were aimed at linking Italy to the rest of Europe with roads that passed through the Alps, and at connecting the economically less developed south of Italy to the country’s north and, thus, to the wealthier countries beyond the Italian border. “The EIB really connected Italy to the rest of Europe and played a part in the country’s development,” says Antonino Giuffrida, a senior engineer in the Bank’s strategic roads division, who has worked on the study and appraisal of many more recent Italian highway and road projects financed by the EIB.
Busy in the Mezzogiorno
As soon as the EIB was founded, it joined with the Italian institutions responsible for the country’s economic development. The system put in place soon after the Treaty of Rome had all EIB funding for Italy channelled through intermediaries such as the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno and other institutions that specialised in long-term finance, such as the Istituto per lo Sviluppo Economico dell’Italia Meridionale. All were big Italian public financial institutions. At the same time, the EIB’s first presidents—Pietro Campilli, who was in office from February 1958 to May 1959, and Paride Formentini, who served until September 1970—were both Italians. They gave their support to the idea that Europe would prosper generally if its poorest regions were given an economic boost.
From 1959 to 1972, over 60% of EIB lending to Member States was granted to Italy, in particular the Mezzogiorno. Of this, 43% went to infrastructure projects. While the EIB loans supported businesses in the south, including chemical plants and even a brewery in Taranto, the road links to markets in the north were vital to the prosperity of all other projects. Thus the EIB financed construction of 475 kilometres of highway serving southern Italy during the period, including:
- the Adriatic highway running from the north down to Puglia
- a highway across the Apennines to link the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic coasts
- two highways in Sicily linking Messina to Patti and Catania.
Elsewhere in Italy, the Bank financed other major roads during the 1960s:
- a major section of highway in the Brenner Pass
- the highway between Quincinetto and Aosta in the Val D’Aosta
- in Abruzzo, a highway and the Gran Sasso tunnel
- the Autostrada dei Fiori between San Remo and the French border
EIB finance for a range of other infrastructure in southern Italy included work done by the SIP telephone company to extend and modernise the telecommunications network. The Bank lent 30% of the total cost of five power stations at Mercure, Taloro, Gallo, Brindisi, and Salerno, which would cover 10% of the Mezzogiorno’s electricity needs. Between 1963 and the end of the decade, the regions of southern Italy that received the most EIB funding doubled productivity levels in some cases, such as Sardinia, or saw significant rises, as in Sicily and Puglia.
Against the forces of nature
Even with all these great projects, the EIB’s work on Italian roads was not finished. After all, the mountain passes through the Apennines are so high—as much as 917 metres above sea level—that the A1 was, for decades, steep and twisting on the Bologna-Florence section. The result was heavy traffic and a large number of accidents. By late last decade, this stretch of highway carried more than twice the traffic for which it was originally designed. It recorded one of the highest accident rates in Italy, with over 2 000 road accidents over the previous decade.
The EIB financed several operations to build the Variante di Valico, a new highway that was to be part of a better motorway system. It was built to accommodate four times the traffic of the previous A1, with lower gradients, smoother curves, and modern systems for traffic control and road safety. The new road is about 225 metres below the level of the previous A1. Instead of clinging to the mountainsides, it passes through them. The stretch of road includes 44 tunnels and more than 40 viaducts and bridges.
“The execution of this project was a real battle against the forces of nature,” explains Giuffrida, who was part of the EIB team that studied the project. “From a geological point of view the new highway crossed one of the most complex areas in Europe.” The ground contained explosive gasses, as well as surface and ground water. The area is subject to high seismic activity and has the highest risk of landslides in Italy. Thus the bridges have foundations up to 30 metres deep and all the viaducts are equipped with special seismic isolators to minimise the movements of the structures in case of earthquakes.