July 4, 2019 / 12:03 PM / 19 days ago

Exclusive: Despite threats, Italy's 5-Star ready to compromise with Atlantia - sources

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s ruling 5-Star Movement is noisily threatening to rip up Atlantia’s motorway concession over last year’s deadly bridge collapse in Genoa, but sources have told Reuters the party is prepared to settle for revisions to its long-term deal.

FILE PHOTO: General view after controlled explosions demolished two of the pylons of the Morandi bridge almost one year since a section of the viaduct collapsed killing 43 people, in Genoa, Italy June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca/File Photo

Instead of revoking the contract, which expires in 2038 and could entail costly compensation for the state, 5-Star is considering presenting the company with a list of demands including a sizeable cut in road tolls, two party sources said.

Some analysts estimate that ending Atlantia’s contract could cost Rome as much as 24 billion euros ($27 billion), although the government says no payment would be due if it can prove the company’s negligence.

5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio has accused its coalition partner, the right-wing League, of being too soft on Atlantia over the collapse of Genoa’s Morandi bridge which killed 43 people last August.

However, Di Maio’s repeated threats are aimed at pressuring the group, which is owned by the Benetton family famous for its clothing label, so that it will agree to his party’s demands when they are presented, the sources said.

Atlantia has always denied wrongdoing and already agreed to pay 439 million euros ($496 million) to rebuild the bridge, the remains of which were demolished last week.

“Di Maio isn’t crazy, it’s obvious that we can reach a solution,” a source close to the party leader told Reuters, asking not to be named. “We have offers to present and Atlantia has an interest in negotiating.”

The concession, held by Atlantia unit Autostrade per l’Italia, is worth a third of the group’s core profits.

Another prominent 5-Star source said its most important demand would be that Atlantia cut motorway tolls.

This would give immediate financial benefit to Italians and may also help the flagging popularity of 5-Star, which won a March 2018 national election but was easily overtaken by the League in May’s European parliamentary ballot.

TOLL COSTS

Motorway tolls in Italy are among the highest in Europe and are a sensitive issue in a country which also has one of the highest car ownership rates in the continent.

Experts appointed by the Italian transport ministry say although the government can revoke Atlantia’s concession unilaterally, it would be less risky to settle the dispute, a report showed on Tuesday.

Di Maio seemed to open the door to talks with Atlantia in an interview on Tuesday with daily la Repubblica, which quoted him as saying he was “ready to find a solution, provided Autostrade pays and there is justice for the victims.”

But in a later comment on Facebook, he reiterated that all conditions were in place for the government to unilaterally revoke the concession.

A third 5-Star source said there were “various possibilities on the table” which would ensure Atlantia pays for what the party sees as its negligence, while bringing benefits for tax-payers and motorists.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The situation is complicated by the division between 5-Star and the League, which is less hostile to Atlantia, and also by differing positions within 5-Star itself.

One of the party’s most popular figures, Alessandro Di Battista, seen as a possible future rival to Di Maio, has taken a particularly hard line on Atlantia, insisting that its concession must be revoked at all costs.

($1 = 0.8867 euros)

Editing by Keith Weir

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