Global Policy Forum

US Military Interests Reign Supreme in Italy


By Stephanie Westbrook

After Downing Street
July 31, 2008

Citing Classified Documents and Laws Enacted under Fascism, Italian Court Approves New US Military Base in Vicenza

On Tuesday, July 29, the Council of State, Italy's highest administrative court, overturned the June 20 decision by the regional court of Veneto to suspend work on a second U.S. Military base in the northeastern city of Vicenza. In contrast to the regional court's methodical examination of each of the points brought forth in the case filed by the consumer and environmental advocacy group Codacons, the appeals court summarily dismissed the case - in record time for Italy's normally sluggish judicial system - stating that the administrative courts had no jurisdiction in what was a purely political matter. In upholding the appeal filed by the center-right Berlusconi government, a staunch ally of the Bush Administration, much of the high court's ruling was based on the infamous 1954 Bilateral Infrastructure Agreement between Italy and the U.S., which remains classified to this day, as well as an Italian law from 1924 - when Italy was still a monarchy and under Mussolini's fascist regime!

The appeals court went on to say that there appears to be no solid evidence of possible environmental damage caused by the new base at Dal Molin Airport. What they failed to mention is that despite repeated calls from the people of Vicenza for an assessment of the environmental impact of the base, no such study has thus far been carried out. And, judging from the September 2007 letter from the Special Commissioner Paolo Costa to then Defense Minister Arturo Parisi, of the center-left Prodi government, it was something to avoid at all costs. "It is clear that this point [Environmental Impact Study] represents an obvious risk to the possibilities of proceeding while respecting deadlines; and it is possible that it could even put the final decision in jeopardy." (See translation of the letter below, as well as Prime Minister Prodi's 'Dear George' letter)

In the period between the regional court's ruling and that of the Council of State, a slight shift occurred in some who had not initially opposed the base. By the time the court was ready to make its ruling, the Codacons, who had made the initial filing, had been joined as plaintiffs by the City of Vicenza, the Societí  Aeroporti Vicentini, which manages the civil airport of Vicenza at Dal Molin, and the City of Padova, concerned about risks posed to groundwater sources located directly under the proposed base that supply both Padova and Vicenza.

The grassroots No Dal Molin movement, which has been opposing the new U.S. base since the news leaked out in May 2006, was quick to respond to what was a disappointing but not surprising result - both Berlusconi and Defense Minister La Russa had already proclaimed that the show would go on. Spreading the word with text messages, a protest was organized in a matter of just a few hours, with hundreds blocking the entrance to the site of the proposed base. Rapid-set concrete was used to bond everything from bricks and cement blocks to a toilet and bidet to the road leading to Dal Molin.

Once the entrance had been blocked, the demonstrators proceeded to organize a "protest crawl," in which 200 cars slowly, but noisily, traversed the city to the site of the existing U.S. base of Camp Ederle, which was then encircled by the protesters. More protests are in the works for what promises to be a busy week for the No Dal Molin movement, including a "march of indignation" set for Thursday, July 31. And in early September, the second annual weeklong No Dal Molin Festival/Campout will be held.

It had already been an eventful month for the No Dal Molin movement. On June 30, the eve of the official turnover of the area to the U.S. Military, a protest march was organized from the Presidio Permanente, the permanent encampment of the movement, to the gates of the site of the proposed base. Over 1,500 people, including families with children, marched under increasingly darkening clouds. The Italian saying piove, governo ladro (it's raining, blame the government) had never been more appropriate.

When the clouds broke, pounding the protesters with not just rain but also hail, a number of the leaders said, "Let's turn back." This was met by cries of "NO!" by the people. "How will we ever block this base if we let a little rain and hail stop us!" At the weekly assembly, Francesco Pavin, one of the main organizers said, "This was by far the best demonstration we have ever had!"

A group of roughly 50 remained at the entrance the entire night, which continued to be stormy, and others joined them the following day to make sure that no U.S. military vehicles entered the site as the Italian Air Force moved out.

On July 8, the Vicenza City Council held a long-awaited session dedicated to the issue of the new U.S. base. In a historic vote, the recently elected center-left majority Council not only overturned the previous administration's October 2006 vote in favor of the new base, but also voted to hold a local referendum. With 25 in favor and 2 opposed - most of the opposition members had walked out - the motions passed.

During the debate, a number of opposition party members spoke of anti- Americanism as the driving force behind the opposition to the base. Cinzia Bottene, newly elected City Council member and leader of the grassroots movement, reminded everyone that at the Presidio permanente, next to the No Dal Molin flag, flies a U.S. flag, with a peace sign replacing the stars, given to them by U.S. citizens united in their struggle. The people down on the square, following the session on a giant screen organized by the Presidio Permanente movement, cheered.

In an unexpected turn of events, members of the center right UDC party, who would normally have voted against the measure, abstained from voting in protest of "insulting language" used to portray Italy and Prime Minister Berlusconi during Bush's visit to Europe in June. In a profile distributed to U.S. reporters traveling with Bush, Berlusconi was described as "one of the most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for governmental corruption and vice ... regarded by many as a political dilettante who gained his high office only through use of his considerable influence on the national media ..."

Despite the Council of State's decision, which also rejected the lower court's ruling that a local referendum was required as per the Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Italy, Vicenza's new mayor, Achille Variati, who made the issue part of his campaign, has every intention of going ahead and has set the date for the referendum for October 12. The people of Vicenza will finally have their say in a matter that has dominated local and national politics for over two years now.

Throughout the month of July, the No Dal Molin movement saw confirmed, time after time, everything they had been saying about the new base and the undemocratic manner in which the matter had been conducted. Not only by the regional court, which ruled favorably on every point, but even in the letter from Special Commissioner Costa on the need to "act in a timely manner to eliminate the reasonable concerns - because they are valid - of this opposition." And finally by the Council of State, which in spite of its ruling, admitted that the "protests are not without objective justifications."

Codacons intends to continue the legal battle against the base. Under a provision that allows for appeals of the decisions by the Council of State in the case of judicial flaws - Codacons is citing two errors - they will now turn to Italy's Court of Cassation. And in October, the regional Veneto court will again take up the case, with additional evidence of risks to the environment.

The legal proceedings have brought to light new information and produced some positive results. But as Olol Jackson of the No Dal Molin movement said, "No one expects this struggle to be won in a courtroom. It will also take mass mobilization, people in the streets." And that's what the people in Vicenza have planned.


Letter by Special Commissioner Costa to then Defense Minister Arturo Parisi on the need to eradicate the local opposition to the base as well as how to circumvent the Minister of the Environment's intention of subjecting the project to an environmental impact study.

Vicenza, September 17, 2007

Distinguished Sir
Honorable Professor Arturo PARISI
Minister of Defense

Dear Minister, dear Arturo,

The time has come for a final decision regarding the expansion project of the U.S. military base at the Dal Molin Airport in Vicenza.

This is a decision that can now be made by taking advantage of the groundwork done in the past months by the Commissioner (which has been summarized by the Director of GENIODIFE, General Resce) and that must now be made in order to establish a positive momentum for the completion of the project and eliminate the elements of local opposition at its roots.

As concerns external non-local opposition elements (apodictic pacifism and anti-Americanism) it will be necessary to intervene with a well thought-out information campaign that, of course, must not regard only the Commissioner.

The three day protest - increasingly characterized by anti-globalization elements - that took place in Vicenza from Thursday, September 13 to Saturday, September 15, at the conclusion of an activist campout that lasted from September 6 to 16, could be the last demonstration of opposition enjoying local support; but only if we act in a timely manner to eliminate the reasonable concerns - because they are valid - of this opposition. I am referring to the concern over traffic created by access to the new base, which could increase the problems of an already difficult traffic situation due to the historic formation of the city of Vicenza, and that of the use of the last important large green area of the city for the base expansion. These are reasonable concerns that should be separated once and for all from those tied to anti- Americanism, anti-Militarism a/o apolitical pacifism, that is, from the concerns that have nothing to do with the characteristics of the new U.S. military base in Vicenza.

After months of relative calm, due to the summer vacation period and the possibility of an alternative solution of lesser impact disclosed by the Commissioner in its communications and in its authorizations for the advancement of the project, today there are renewed risks due to the activities of the Presidio Permanente supported by the anti- globalization movements of the North East, if not those of all of Italy and beyond. It is foreseeable that tensions will increase as soon as the initial work of clearing the area, work already under contract, begins.

This is, therefore, the moment to intervene decisively and transform the possible alternative solution, which has already been made public, into a definite solution, and to start using this alternative solution in communications.

We need to be able to state - with certainty - that the new U.S. military base is nothing more that the reuse, with some expansion, of the area west of the runway, already in use by the Italian Air Force and therefore the area east of the runway, the large open field that would have been destroyed according to the first proposal, and which ignited the local opposition, would remain intact. This assertion, together with another that has already been put forth, that access to the new base will be organized, both temporarily and in the long term, so that it will not interfere with the local traffic and above all traffic crossing the historic center of Vicenza, would remove all reasonable concerns of the opposition movement.

If I may I would add, as must be added, that Vicenza will be compensated for its "sacrifice" with the completion of the new road north of the city and with other possible initiatives in the areas of higher education and health care, the complete package should pave the way for the project.

But it is imperative that we make use of all means and do so immediately.

In order to do this, it is necessary to complete the work that I have conducted, also during the month of August, with U.S. representatives (in Vicenza with the U.S. commander of Camp Ederle, in Rome with the U.S. Embassy, and in Venice during a meeting with Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Chair [note: she is a member but not chair] of the House Armed Services Committee) to convince them that the alternative "west" solution, though technically more complicated, is instead the only solution that, if defined immediately, can make it through the authorization process and possible legal proceedings while still meeting deadlines foreseen by the United States for the transfer of the paratrooper contingent from Germany to Italy. I demonstrated to the U.S. officials how it is still possible to respect the deadlines with the "west" solution, while I warned them that this solution is certainly more costly (and therefore they must obtain the additional funds needed from now to 2011).

The Prime Minister is aware of this proposed solution and he has given me the go ahead.

It follows that several documents from the respective Ministries will be necessary, first and foremost the Defense Ministry.

The first, and this is crucial, is the definition and respect of a date not after June 30, 2008 for the liberation on the part of the Italian Air Force of the Dal Molin area. I realize there are some difficulties, also of a financial nature, tied to the helicopter maintenance program, however these must be overcome - perhaps taking advantage of the budget session that will take place at the end of the month - because the definition of a date is a fundamental condition to reassure the U.S. regarding the respect of deadlines for the completion of the project. The decision should be made by the end of the month in order to add it as an amendment to the call for bids to be published by September 30, 2007 so that bidding companies will be in a position to consider this date in the offers they must present by October 16, 2007.

It is evident that this decision must be communicated in a timely manner to General Enrico Pino of the COMIPA (Joint Committee on Military Servitude) of the Veneto Region, which will examine the project - both solutions east and west of the runway - on September 26, 2007.

The second regards the decision of whether or not the expansion project of the U.S. military base in Vicenza is subject to a VIA (Evaluation of Environmental Impact).

It is clear that this point represents an obvious risk to the possibilities of proceeding while respecting deadlines; and it is possible that it could even put the final decision in jeopardy, since currently is it entirely predictable (and has already been practically announced) that the Minister of the Environment intends to subject the project to a VIA. This can only give rise to likely obstacles - the case of the MOSE project has set an indicative precedent - capable of being resolved only through the extreme solution of a resolution by the Council of Ministers, which could result in lacerations that in a moment such as this I believe are better avoided.

According to legal opinions I have gathered, which the State Attorney Marco Corsini, who is assisting me in the activities of the Commissioner, is ready to discuss with those from your office, the project of the U.S. base at Dal Molin is not subject to a VIA since it is an administrative procedure relative to "facilities destined for national defense" (which are associated with infrastructures financed with NATO funds and other allied forces) introduced by petition prior to July 31, 2007, the date in which Law 152/2006 went into effect, and therefore subject to regulations in act previously (see article 52, comma 2), and for such type of intervention the VIA is excluded.

I therefore feel that while we await the necessary analysis, we should avoid expressing willingness toward the position of the Minister of the Environment, expressions that perhaps in the view of political opportunity could help attenuate some current pressures, but that later would be difficult to retract.

It seems to me evident, in any event, that asserting that the project is not subject to the VIA would be more promising if referred to the project of substantial re-use of the existing Italian military structures (west solution) rather than the use of the large open field (east solution).

The third act, to be put together starting with the Defense Ministry and to be concluded under the direction of the Prime Minister's Office, regards the elaboration and the signing of a "framework agreement" with all interested parties in order to make official the deadlines, actions and responsibilities, to which appropriate publicity will be given.

Best regards,

Paolo Costa


Letter by then Prime Minister Romano Prodi to George Bush communicating his government's approval of the base. This informal letter has been offered as a response to the regional court's ruling that no formal government act had ever been presented regarding the matter.

Rome, May 18, 2007

Mr. President, Dear George,

In a few days we will see each other in Germany for the G8 summit and again in Rome shortly afterwards. I am particularly pleased to have these two opportunities to meet, which I am certain will be useful occasions to review a series of issues of mutual interest in the spirit of the friendship that has always represented our bilateral relations.

In this sense, I would like to inform you of the decision by my government to give its consent to the expansion of the U.S. base in Vicenza through the use of the Dal Molin Airport in the same city.

I further inform you that I intend to nominate the Honorable Paolo Costa as my representative to facilitate the completion of the expansion and to coordinate the relationships between the central administrations and the agencies involved in the project.

In this context, the Minister of Defense - through the Joint Chiefs of Staff - will cooperate as regards the Italian side of the execution of the project under the framework provided by the Bilateral Infrastructure Agreement of 1954.

I am certain that such provisions will guarantee us a swift execution of the work in the interest of all, the US Military and the economic and social interests of the area.

I look forward to seeing you soon in Heiligendamm as well as Rome and I send my best wishes.

With profound friendship,

Romano Prodi

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