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Italy gets six months breathing room over high-speed link

Rome - The Franco-Italian company in charge of a Turin-Lyon high-speed rail link has invited expressions of interest from potential contractors in a process that now gives Italy some six months to make a decision on the contested project.

TELT said on March 11 it was calling for expressions of interest for work on the French portion of the rail link, worth an estimated 2.3 billion euros ($2.6 billion).

The call effectively launched the tender process, though the company said it will not proceed with the definition of contracts -- expected to take place in around six months time -- without a green light from both Rome and Paris.

The company also said neither country would face penalties should the tenders be revoked.

The news soothed frayed nerves in Italy's coalition government, which has been hit hard by bitter infighting over the project.


- 'Full commitment' -


Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had on March 7 attempted to buy more time in a bid to stave off a crisis within the fragile coalition, but company TELT had insisted the process must go ahead in order to avoid losing European Union funding.

Some 300 million euros of European Commission funding is at stake.

The issue has become a battle ground between Italy's far-right League -- a staunch supporter of the project -- and its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement (M5S), which fiercely opposes it on environmental and costs grounds.

The key element is a tunnel that would run for 57.5 kilometres (36 miles) beneath the Alps at an estimated cost of 8.6 billion euros ($9.7 billion), part of which has already been dug.

The bill is currently set to be split 40 percent, 35 percent and 25 percent between the European Union, Italy and France.

France's Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said TELT's move was "a positive step" which allows "the project to progress, European funding to be kept, and the Italian government to have the time for reflection it desires".

She also stressed France's "full commitment" to the project, which would halve the travel time between Turin in northern Italy and the French city of Lyon to just two hours, and make it possible to travel from Milan to Paris in just over four hours.

Political watchers say that if the project cannot be stopped altogether, opponents hope that at least France can be persuaded to pay a larger part of the bill, easing the burden on the Italian taxpayer.

Conte said this weekend that he had written to French President Emmanuel Macron, and to the head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, to seek a meeting in which they could arrive at a joint decision.

On Monday he called for Italian media to ease up on the rolling coverage on the issue, saying "you are all obsessed. I have bigger problems: relaunching Italy's economy".

The Corriere della Sera, Italy's best-selling daily, said it would be difficult to stop the Lyon-Turin line going ahead.

"In order to stop it, parliament would have to pass a law... but the M5S does not have the necessary votes to do so," it said in an editorial on March 10.

By Ella Ide