Lombardy region’s governor pushes for Italian businesses to reopen

Lombardy, at the centre of Italy's coronavirus outbreak, has the strictest quarantine rules in the country. But now the head of the wealthy northern region is campaigning for the whole of Italy to reopen for business.

Lombardy region's governor pushes for Italian businesses to reopen
The deserted Via Santo Spirito, part of Milan's luxury shopping district, on April 9, Photo: AFP

Attilo Fontana, the governor of  Lombardy and a prominent member of the right-wing populist League party, sparked controversy on Thursday when he outlined his region's “road to freedom” in a Facbeook post.

The wealthy Lombardy region accounts for over a fifth of Italy's economic activity and Milan is home to the Italian headquarters of numerous global firms.

READ ALSO: Why the coronavirus quarantine rules aren't always the same around Italy

But this one region, at the epicentre of the outbreak in Italy, has also seen almost 60 percent of Italy's COVID-19 deaths, or over 11,000 of the total, which rose above 21,500 on Wednesday.

Italy's official toll – which is believed to be substantially underreported – was the world's highest until being overtaken by the United States last weekend.

Lombardy was the first region to cordon off “red zones” as the infection spread, and the first to implement a regional lockdown in early March.

It currently has stricter quarantine rules in place than any other Italian region – with fines of up to 5,000 euros for transgressions (the maximum fine in most of Italy is 3,000 euros).

After Lombardy and other parts of northern Italy went into lockdown, Italy rolled out strict national quarantine measures on March 10.

The restrictions seem to be working so far to contain the outbreak, but have had a severe impact on the country's already struggling economy.

The International Monetary Fund expects Italy's total output to shrink by 9.1 percent this year – the worst peacetime decline in nearly a century.

Millions of Italians are either furloughed or suddenly unemployed, and a growing number of people in Italy haven't got enough money for food and basic necessities.

READ ALSO: Fears in Italy shift to growing number who can't afford to eat under lockdown

In his Facebook post, Fontana insisted all businesses should reopen when the current nationwide lockdown expires on May 4, following basic social distancing rules.

”Many other European countries are already beginning to reopen. We need to start thinking about our own future immediately,” he said.

Some European nations, such as Denmark, Finland, andLithuania, are now cautiously eyeing ends to their own shutdowns.

Attilo Fontana, the regional governor of  Lombardy. Photo: AFP

However most bigger European countries, including neighbouring France where the situation is more similar to that in Italy, are extending their closures for at least a few more weeks.

Italian government officials still follow the advice of doctors who think it is best to keep the nation locked down until new infections sharply drop off.

READ ALSO: When will Italy's lockdown 'phase two' begin and what will it involve?

Italy's Deputy Industry Minister Stefano Buffagni called Fontana's message “an error”.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who continues to urge caution, has been widely applauded for his handing of what is widely viewed as Italy's worst crisis since World War II.

His government last week chose to extend the lockdown until at least May 3rd on the advice of its panel of scientific experts, despite pressure from those who want to restart economic activity this month.

It also allowed a short list of businesses to start reopening across the country from Tuesday April 14th.

READ ALSO: Here are the businesses that can start reopening in Italy

However, the Lombardy regional administration, led by Fontana, immediately stated that it would not be allowing these businesses to reopen yet.

Lombardy would remain in full lockdown and economic hibernation until May 3rd with no gradual reopening before that date, the region's Welfare Minister Giulio Gallera announced on Saturday.

Fontana came under heavy criticism following his Facbeook post on Thursday, with many saying he seemed to have changed his stance on the issue.

Milan's mayor, Beppe Sala accused Fontana of shifting his position from recently being alarmed about the virus, to now ordering “everyone outside”.

“A little more restraint would not be too much to ask for,” Sala told La Repubblica newspaper.

“I am not against an economic recovery, because it affects the work of so many people,” the Milan mayor said. “But we must provide adequate guarantees first to those who go to work.”

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Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Italy's government is leading a revolt against an EU plan for a green car transition, vowing to protect the automotive industry in a country still strongly attached to the combustion engine - despite the impact of climate change.

Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right coalition, which came into office last October, tried and failed to block EU plans to ban the sale of new cars running on fossil fuels by 2035, which her predecessor Mario Draghi had supported.

But this week the government took the fight to planned ‘Euro 7’ standards on pollutants, joining with seven other EU member states – including France and Poland – to demand Brussels scrap limits due to come into force in July 2025.

READ ALSO: Why electric cars aren’t more popular in Italy

“Italy is showing the way, our positions are more and more widely shared,” claimed Enterprise Minister Adolfo Urso, a fervent proponent of national industry in the face of what he has called an “ideological vision” of climate change.

The EU plan “is clearly wrong and not even useful from an environmental point of view”, added Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, which shares power with Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

Salvini led the failed charge against the ban on internal combustion engines, branding it “madness” that would “destroy thousands of jobs for Italian workers” while he claimed it would benefit China, a leader in producing electric vehicles.

Electric car being charged

Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

Federico Spadini from Greenpeace Italy lamented that “environmental and climate questions are always relegated to second place”, blaming a “strong industrial lobby in Italy” in the automobile and energy sectors.

“None of the governments in recent years have been up to the environmental challenge,” he told AFP.

“Unfortunately, Italy is not known in Europe as climate champion. And it’s clear that with Meloni’s government, the situation has deteriorated,” he said.

Low demand

Jobs are a big factor. In 2022, Italy had nearly 270,000 direct or indirect employees in the automotive sector, which accounted for 5.2 percent of GDP.

The European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA) has warned that switching to all electric cars could lead to more than 60,000 job losses in Italy by 2035 for automobile suppliers alone.

READ ALSO: Italians and their cars are inseparable – will this ever change?

“Since Fiat was absorbed by Stellantis in 2021, Italy no longer has a large automobile industry, but it remains big in terms of components, which are all orientated towards traditional engines,” noted Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.

For consumers too, the electric revolution has yet to arrive.

Italy has one of the highest car ownership rates in Europe: ranking fourth behind Liechtenstein, Iceland and Luxembourg with 670 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the latest Eurostat figures from 2020.

But sales of electric cars fell by 26.9 percent in 2022, to just 3.7 percent of the market, against 12.1 percent for the EU average.

Electric cars charge at a hub in central Milan on March 23, 2023. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Subsidies to boost zero emissions vehicles fell flat, while Minister Urso has admitted that on infrastructure, “we are extremely behind”.

Italy has just 36,000 electric charging stations, compared to 90,000 for the Netherlands, a country the fraction of the size of Italy, he revealed.

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

“There is no enthusiasm for electric cars in Italy,” Felipe Munoz, an analyst with the automotive data company Jato Dynamics, told AFP.

“The offer is meagre, with just one model manufactured by national carmaker Fiat.”

In addition, “purchasing power is not very high, people cannot afford electric vehicles, which are expensive. So the demand is low, unlike in Nordic countries.”

Gerrit Marx, head of the Italian truck manufacturer Iveco, agrees.

“We risk turning into a big Cuba, with very old cars still driving around for years, because a part of the population will not be able to afford an electric model,” he said.