Treviso's car ban on 'Environment Day' shows that when it comes to green issues, Italian voters have no choice.
‘Go Italy’ is the English translation of Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi’s political party that has led his government coalition since 2001. Two weeks before the Italy’s general election, parts of Italy became no go, as cars were banned to protect the environment.
The environment has become an important election issue – but the two leading candidates for prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi, are united on environmental policy. And that means voters are not being offered a choice. Take the Treviso car ban as an example.
The northern Italian province of Treviso, where I live, is approximately 60 kilometres by 60 kilometres, from north to south and east to west (1). It is a highly populated province centred on the wealthy city of Treviso. On 7 February 2006, a committee from the Treviso provincial council decided that Sunday 26 March would be ‘Environment Day’, and that the use of vehicles would be banned between 8am and 8pm.
The legal ordinance issued by the Treviso Council gave two justifications for the ban:
- To inform and raise awareness;
- That tolerable levels of pollution were being repeatedly exceeded and this is causing public risks, especially for weaker people (children, old people) (2).
The ordinance offered no evidence for the lack of environmental awareness in the Treviso province. Nor did it offer any data on how pollution levels had been exceeded, why this causes risks for the public, or why children and old people are at greater risk.
The ordinance listed some exceptions to the vehicle ban, including hybrid vehicles and vehicles that run on gas, public buses and taxis, and emergency services and veterinary or medical vehicle use. In addition, private cars could be used for people staying in hotels, who needed to travel to places of employment, religious ceremonies and sporting events. A document was posted to all households and could be downloaded from the council website; individuals who needed to travel could present this document to the police if they were stopped when travelling. The fine for driving a vehicle illegitimately was between 71 and 286 Euros. No vehicles were banned on the principal provincial roads that connect the province to other areas.
There was a considerable reaction from local people. Owners of businesses that rely on customers travelling to them on Sundays, such as restaurants, bars and ice cream shops, faced the prospect of losing a day of trade. Indeed, the leading local newspaper, Il Gazzettino, reported the day before Environment Day that it would be acceptable to use travelling to a restaurant as a legitimate reason for vehicle use, even though this was not stated in the Treviso Council ordinance (3).
The application of Environment Day was patchy. Twenty-eight of the 95 smaller council areas within the province exercised the right not to enforce the Environment Day ordinance. It was possible to drive on the principal provincial roads, but in most areas it was not possible legally to drive to them. I was allowed to drive in my village, but not in the two villages either side on connecting roads or through the two nearest towns. The legitimate reasons for travel included grey areas. Was going to the swimming pool a ‘sporting event’? Was attending a private ‘religious ceremony’ an acceptable reason to drive?
There was the expected civil disobedience that Italians often have for many of the country’s laws. But the Environment Day significantly reduced road traffic, and many businesses closed for the day.
The council is now discussing similar days in the future, with more severe application of restrictions. Similar measures have been implemented in other parts of the Veneto region, including in Padua on 19 March 2006. According to Il Gazzettino (4), police stopped 491 vehicles on the day to check they had authorisation to travel. The Padua provincial environment councillor, Roberto Marcato, subsequently advocated the adoption of a vehicle ban for the whole of the Veneto region.
This has implications for our right to travel. Will it become a crime to go for a Sunday drive (as many Italians still often do)? If the justification for the restrictions is accepted, why limit them to Sundays? Why not make people justify every journey?
When I complained to a friend about the car bans, he replied that Italians can always vote the council out of office. I pointed out to him that there was no political choice on the matter: Treviso provincial council is dominated by the Northern League, which is seen as less environmentally friendly than the left and green parties.
The environment has become a key election theme. Early in March the Italian World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published a six-chapter book about the environment in Italy during the Berlusconi government’s 2001-2006 administration (5). On 23 March, the environment minister Altero Matteoli unveiled an upbeat report about progress in the country’s environmental health – which Senator Fausto Giovannelli of the opposition Democratic Left party blasted, stating: ‘Matteoli is using the environment for his electoral ambitions.’ (6)
One government ‘public information’ broadcast showed numerous initiatives by the Berlusconi government that were said to have brought development and environmental progress. One was the high-speed train link connecting Italy with the European network; another was the construction of a mobile barrier project to protect Venice from flooding. During the televised election campaign debate between Prodi and Berlusconi on 14 March, Berlusconi raised the high speed train link and the mobile barrier project as positive examples of what the government has done for the environment. Prodi responded that if he wins the election, his government would continue with the train link – though he would not state his position on the mobile barrier.
Both candidates promote the environment as an electoral issue, but when they lack distinctive environmental policies on vehicle bans, infrastructure projects and carbon dioxide emissions, there is little for voters to engage with. Environmentalism is not really about political choice. Instead, it’s a posture that politicians strike to show that they are ‘doing something’; telling people to cut back their consumption becomes an easy way to claim the moral high ground. That is why it is an issue that cuts across all parties. The travel restrictions are likely to extend, whether Berlusconi or Prodi wins the elections.
The British radical commentator Martin Jacques has argued that Berlusconi ‘lies in direct line of descent from Mussolini and poses a toxic threat to democracy’ (7). But the real threat for democracy comes when the electorate is not offered choices on key issues such as environmental policies. It is strange that commentators like Jacques do not criticise Berlusconi when he makes restrictions in the name of environmentalism.
Dominic Standish (firstname.lastname@example.org) is doing a PhD on environmental risk in Italy.
(1) Map of Treviso province. Click on ‘Mappa Geoplan’
(2) Measures for the limitation of road traffic for the prevention and reduction of pollution in the atmosphere: the blocking of the circulation of traffic during the day of Sunday 26 March, Treviso Council, February 2006
(3) Blocco del traffico in due Comuni su tre, Marco Gasparin, Il Gazzettino, 25 March 2006
(4) Tutti a casa, ma senza uno scopo, Anon, Il Gazzettino, 20 March 2006
(5) Politica e ambiente: bilancio della legislatura 2001-6, WWF, 2006
(6) Upbeat environment report blasted, ANSA news agency, 23 March 2006
(7) New Labour Must Recognise that Berlusconi is the Devil, by Martin Jacques, Guardian, 16 March 2006