Matteo Renzi has an idea: train Eurocrats in Italy, as a way to boost Italy’s influence in the EU. Possibly a good idea. He wants that place to be Santo Stefano. That’s a really bad idea.

Yes, nearby Ventotene was where Altiero Spinelli was imprisoned, and where he penned the Ventotene Manifesto with Ernesto Rossi that acted as the founding document of the European federalist movement, but that connection to the founding of the EU does not make Renzi’s plan sensible.

Politico’s article about Renzi’s plans (and the €80 million investment Renzi advocates) calls Santo Stefano Italy’s Alcatraz and that’s not a bad description actually. Except Santo Stefano is 46km from the Italian coast, while Alcatraz is just 2km from San Francisco.

That is the first reason a college for Eurocrats (or indeed anyone else for that matter) is really stupid on Santo Stefano – the place is an absolute pain to get to. Trust me, I’ve been on Santo Stefano (the pic above I took there in 2000). You first have to take a train from Roma to Formia (90 minutes), then a hydrofoil to Ventotene (60 minutes – and really bumpy if there’s any swell, and indeed cancelled if the sea is choppy) or the slower ferry instead (150 minutes), and then a short trip on a small boat across to Santo Stefano. Add in the 30 minutes to get to Roma Termini from Leonardo da Vinci Airport and that means it’s impossible to make a day trip to Ventotene or Santo Stefano.

Remoteness is precisely what you do not want if you want to train people to work in government office, or be involved in politics. Politics is about people, about exchange of ideas, about openness to the world around you. That’s precisely the opposite of what you would get in Santo Stefano. It would also make things really complex for experts to come and deliver lectures – people are not going to spare a couple of days messing around on hydrofoils and ferries to go an lecture there, however nice the island ultimately is when you get there.

I studied at one of the Eurocrat colleges that already exist – the College of Europe in Bruges – and that was already remote enough. Bruges has no university, and feels like living in a museum, and the 400 students spend an unhealthy amount of time associating only with each other as a result. And that is in a city that’s just an hour by train from Brussels. In comparison it’d take you more than 2 hours to even just get to the mainland of Italy from Santo Stefano, with no easy way to get back again the same day – that’d be a recipe for hell – as it was intended to be for prisoners there. Also be aware that Santo Stefano is just 400m in diameter, and has no source of its own fresh water (it has to be shipped to the larger Ventotene a few times a week as well!) – staying there would be no joy whatsoever.

So Matteo Renzi, by all means look at establishing some government school, but please, please, please do not make it at Santo Stefano. It’s never going to work if you put it there!

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  1. David Rinaldi

    Well, you’re probably right. A proper ‘College’ in Santo Stefano would be probably too detached from the world and from reality. But I do not think that the purpose of PM Renzi was that of creating a Euro bubble in the little island. The former prison is likely to become a youth hostel, possibly running some cultural activities at the side. Italy has a European college in Parma and the European University Institute in Fiesole/Florence, which despite being close to cities do remain ‘bubbles’.

    There is one argument that I do not buy from your post, I do not think that a school of politics needs people. Well, it depends what the school aims at. Too often our EU leaders and Eurocrats dig into day-to-day management; they try to solve crises, they act as firemen as Delors would say. In that case yes, it is better if students deal with the ‘world’ and remain linked to current political debates. If instead the school aims at forming architects, i.e. leaders with a long term vision, it is not a bad idea to completely detach from current issues. In other words, Santo Stefano could be a good location for a truly elitist school, where few political strategist who already know more than the basics of EU politics gather together and do nothing but think and talk. Maybe they can have a two week camp in which they also hoe the ground like Spinelli did! “I have to exercise both mind and body » he used to say. 🙂

    Santo Stefano could totally be a place for reflection. And in this sense it is useful to Renzi’s agenda, he wants to create a new vision for Europe, no Eurocrats. Take the 5 most inspired and inspiring College of Europe graduates, send them to Santo Stefano for two weeks together with 5 from the EUI and 5 from the Central European University for instance, e vediamo cosa succede. Let’s see what is the Europe they envisage.