Expo chronicles: The experience of Milan 2015

If Baku hosts Expo 2025, will Mehriban Aliyeva and her team be more successful than the organizers in Milan?

Visitors stands in queue outside a Azerbaijan pavilion at the Expo 2015 global fair in Milan, Italy, October 29, 2015. Milan Expo closes its doors on Saturday after a highly successful run that defied those who predicted it would flop and debunking the stereotype view that Italians cannot queue. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo – GF20000037640


Mehriban Aliyeva is lobbying to host an international festival called the

World Expo

in Baku in 2025. If successful, Azerbaijan will spend billions of dollars to construct a venue to host the six-month-long festival – a series of parks and pavillions on the Absheron peninsula which are meant to be a substantial extension of the capital. Azerbaijan’s diplomatic corps is lobbying around the world in support of the Vice President’s plan. Baku has stiff competition from Osaka and Yekaterinburg, but anything could happen. Organizers will visit Baku 17-19 April to evaluate Azerbaijan’s bid, whose fate will then be decided by a vote among 170 countries in Paris in November.


Azerbaijan first announced intentions to compete back in 2015, at that year’s Expo in Milan. To find out what it’s like to host an Expo, Meydan TV turned to Lorenzo Bagnoli and Luca Rinaldi, investigative journalists who co-authored a book about Milan’s experience. During the campaign for their bid, Italy spent millions to try to buy votes from developing countries. The preparations for the event were marred by corruption scandals involving the mafia, and the benefits in infrastructure which were promised are still not complete and may prove unsustainable.


If Baku hosts Expo 2025, will Mehriban Aliyeva and her team be more successful than the organizers in Milan? Azerbaijan’s track record would suggest that this is unlikely….

MILAN 2015

The Expo 2015 logo is seen at the event’s headquarters near Milan, 3 April 2015 (REUTERS/ Giorgio Perottino)
The Expo 2015 logo is seen at the event’s headquarters near Milan, 3 April 2015 (REUTERS/ Giorgio Perottino)

The Expo was still just a dream in 2006 when Milan began its campaign. Imagining the city as it would become by 2015, anything seemed possible. Politicians in their speeches said that the Expo would transform Milan, and maybe Italy itself. Without a doubt, it would give Milan the chance to attract more tourists. But, ultimately, the Expo offered both light and shadow.

The total budget of the Italian company Expo 2015 SpA, which ran the international fair, is still unclear. Part of that money went to international organized crime groups, which were granted tenders worth millions of euros.

The event was used to expand the political influence of the organizers. Giuseppe “Beppe” Sala, managing director of Expo 2015 SpA, is now mayor of the city.

The local administration still has not resolved the question of how to use the venue on which billions have already been spent. 11 years after the very first dream of the new city, most of it remains only on paper.

But some of the consequences are already clear today. From the Milan Expo there are lessons to be learnt.

THE DREAM

A person visits the Holy See pavilion at Expo 2015 in Milan, 6 May 2015 (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)
A person visits the Holy See pavilion at Expo 2015 in Milan, 6 May 2015 (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)

Letizia Moratti made her first move in 2006. A member of the leading political party in Italy at the time, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Moratti was the mayor of Milan. She had a dream of creating a new international reputation for the city. And she would turn that dream into reality by hosting a World Expo.

The World Expo is a kind of international festival. The event is organized by an intergovernmental organization based in Paris called the Bureau International des Expositions, or BIE. Held in a different city every few years, each Expo is themed around a major political or economic issue. Each of the BIE’s member countries (and there are 170 in total) is given a space to put on an exhibition based on that year’s theme and, of course, to promote their business interests.

On 30 October, 2006, the Italian government presented Milan’s candidature to the BIE. Milan’s bid presented a grandiose vision of a city revamped: new canals to navigate the city, new residential areas and tourist routes. The proposed budget was 14 billion euros, which was to be spent on one million square meters of new constructions plus infrastructure, and it was predicted that 29 million tickets would be sold.

The Turkish city, Izmir, was also competing for Expo 2015, and it was considered the favorite at the outset. The host city for each World Expo event is chosen by a secret ballot among the 170 member states of the BIE at the General Assembly in Paris. Winning the Expo would be a challenge for Milan.

THE ART OF DIPLOMACY

Milan’s Mayor Letizia Moratti (C) reacts upon learning the result of the secret vote by the International Exhibitions Bureau members (BIE) in Paris on 31 March 2008 (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)
Milan’s Mayor Letizia Moratti (C) reacts upon learning the result of the secret vote by the International Exhibitions Bureau members (BIE) in Paris on 31 March 2008 (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

To get the votes she needed from the BIE, Moratti set up a team of former ambassadors, public relations experts, communication managers, and lobbyists, and sent them in search of voters and supporters to 80 different countries. From the beginning, Moratti’s frontman was her advisor, Paolo Glisenti. Nicknamed “the Rasputin of Milan” for his influence over Moratti, Glisenti was hired for a salary of 900 euros per day to act as the chief of the Committee to promote the Expo.

For its exhibition, Milan chose the theme: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”. The motto was designed for lobbying in the Third World: the idea was to get votes from developing countries through the promise of cooperation projects.

One of Milan’s lobbyists, Gaetano Castellini-Curiel, wrote a book called La Candidatura (“The Candidature”) where he said that each vote is “precious merchandise and cooperation is the only coin to pay for it.” Getting the votes “didn’t imply only haphazard diplomatic activity, but also real negotiation based on cooperation projects, partnerships, and future votes.”

And so Milan presented a budget of four million euros for cooperation on sustainable development projects to fight poverty and malnutrition, primarily in Africa and South America (the results of those projects remain unknown). Private business lent its support to Milan’s lobbying efforts, including influential companies such as Italian energy giants Eni, Edison, and Enel, high-tech manufacturer Finmeccanica (now renamed Leonardo), and the international construction firm Impregilo.

Milan was able to use geopolitics as skillfully as it used economic lobbying to get the votes it needed. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is one of the largest international organizations in the world, with 57 member states. Turkey is a member of the OIC, and Izmir seemed guaranteed to get a majority of OIC members’ votes. But Italy had a plan to change the orientation of the OIC.

After the election of Hamas in Palestine in 2006, the Italian Foreign Minister said that the time had come to open a dialogue on Israel and Palestine. In retaliation, the Israeli foreign minister announced that it would support Izmir at the BIE elections for Expo 2015. But Israel’s support proved fatal for Izmir, provoking a reaction inside the OIC: most of the 57 members switched their support to Milan.

At the end of the day, Milan prevailed with 85 votes against 65 for Izmir. A total of nine million euros had been spent on the campaign with 485 cooperation projects to be launched.

“We were persuasive because we had been able, for the first time, to create a unique system of public and private sectors bound together to lobby for our candidacy,” said lobbyist Gaetano Castellini-Curiel in an interview with Meydan TV. None of this would have been possible without strong support from the national government. “Our competitor, Izmir, paid the price of the division between the city council and Erdogan’s government.”

THE CUPOLA

A worker stands next to the 37-meter “The Tree of Life” at the Expo 2015 work site near Milan, 3 April 2015 (REUTERS/ Giorgio Perottino)
A worker stands next to the 37-meter ‘The Tree of Life’ at the Expo 2015 work site near Milan, 3 April 2015 (REUTERS/ Giorgio Perottino)

This would be the first time that an Expo would be held in a brand new venue specially built for the event. According to the Expo’s traditions, the international fair aims to renew a part of the host city, rather than to create a new complex. One of the most important considerations in the BIE’s vote is the legacy of the exposition site and its contribution to the revitalization of the city. Leaving environmental and architectural disasters would be bad for the BIE’s reputation. Nevertheless, the International Bureau approved the proposed construction in the peripheral area of Rho, on the outskirts of Milan.

Before starting to grant public tenders, local authorities should have published a list of companies holding so-called “antimafia certificates,” that is companies that have demonstrated that they have no ties to the mafia. This is a standard procedure in Italy, where the mafia is so powerful and widespread. But construction would have to be rushed to be completed on time, and the rules were set aside, including the “whitelist” for public tenders.

On 8 May 2014, it became clear that something had gone wrong with the tenders. That day Italian law enforcement arrested the Expo 2015 managing director, a former senator, two former local politicians and an important entrepreneur. They were charged with organized crime, corruption, tampering with bids, and disclosing business secrets.

In Italy, “the Cupola” is the name normally given to the highest mafia hierarchy. According to the Milanese prosecutors, the Cupola brings together politicians, businessmen, and criminals. The Cupola was in control of some of the biggest tenders of the exposition, 1.2 million euros in total, and it was seeking another big grant worth 323 million. Some of these projects were never completed. One of the Cupola’s members was trying to put their hands also on the most valuable tender of the exposition: the Piastra, the foundation of the whole site. Later it was discovered that a number of tenders had actually been granted to the most dangerous crime syndicate in Italy, the ‘Ndrangheta.

THE PROTESTS

Protesters hold a banner reading “No Expo” during a rally against Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, 30 April 2015 (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)
Protesters hold a banner reading ‘No Expo’ during a rally against Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, 30 April 2015 (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)

At the opening ceremony on 1 May 2015, the weather was cloudy, but the atmosphere was festive. Only 50 days earlier, the opening had been in doubt, as 80% of the pavilions were still under construction. A few of the sites were not yet ready, but the opening was able to proceed with the venue nearly complete, and organizers say there were estimated 200,000 people in attendance.

The opening on 1 May coincided with traditional Labor Day celebrations. Outside the Expo gates, in the center of Milan, 20,000 people were peacefully demonstrating, as they always do on that day. But this time was different: there were protestors as well.

The protesters were angry that organized crime had been enriched by the Expo’s multimillion euro tenders, but that was just one of their grievances. They were also angry that organizers had made false promises for good employment (most of the new jobs were temporary and badly paid), and that multinational corporations like Nestlé were playing a prominent role in an exhibition which was meant to lobby for the sustainable development of agriculture.

Protesters are seen near a burning car during a rally against Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, 1 May 2015 (REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo)
Protesters are seen near a burning car during a rally against Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, 1 May 2015 (REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo)

Suddenly, in the middle of the demonstration, a group of around 500 protesters from different countries (mainly Greece) start vandalizing the street. In the end ten people were arrested. The public, which had shown some support for the protestors’ grievances before, turned against them after they became violent.

For the majority of people who visited the site, Expo 2015 was a pleasant experience. For six months in Rho there was a permanent party mood. Visitors could walk along the mile-long site to have a look to the architecture of the pavilions and taste some typical food from each of the 109 participant countries. This was the essence of the Expo for visitors: tasty food and beautiful architecture. The event was constantly promoted on the news and by one account the Expo brought an extra one million tourists to Milan. The mafia infiltration wasn’t evident to most of them.

THE AFTERMATH

Visitors queue outside the Poland pavilion at the Expo 2015 global fair in Milan, Italy, 29 October 2015 (REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)
Visitors queue outside the Poland pavilion at the Expo 2015 global fair in Milan, Italy, 29 October 2015 (REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)

Two years after the closing of the Expo’s gates, there are still doubts about the fate of the exhibition area. The cost of developing the site for use post-Expo is projected at two billion euros. According to the final project, most of the area will be set aside for buildings of public interest: a new campus for a local university, a research center, and a health center. A huge area – 460,000 m2 – has also been set aside for a park. According to the timetable, the site should be finished in 2021, but so far the process has been very complicated.

An area of 200,000 m2 has been earmarked for the private sector. The company in charge of purchasing and managing the plots, Arexpo, has taken out 96 million euros in loans but it failed in its primary objective: selling the plots to companies which would develop the site. The initial offering in 2014 was a failure – there were no bidders.

The Italian Ministry of Economics was forced to become shareholder of Arexpo to manage the situation. Without its participation, no private company would have never invested in the area: it is too risky from an economic perspective to develop such a huge area. Over the next 10 years, the Ministry predicts that it will take on 200 million euros of debt accrued by Arexpo, thereby transferring those costs to the public.

BENEFICIARIES

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) gestures as he speaks next to Commissioner of Expo 2015 Giuseppe Sala during a news conference at the Expo 2015 work site near Milan, 13 March 2015 (REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) gestures as he speaks next to Commissioner of Expo 2015 Giuseppe Sala during a news conference at the Expo 2015 work site near Milan, 13 March 2015 (REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)

Expo was supposed to benefit the whole country, but in fact the city of Milan benefitted at the expense of the national budget. Milan was granted 12 billion euros for public works and infrastructure projects despite the economic crisis. According to the original candidacy bid, that amount of money should have been invested for the whole country.

Milan ended up with a brand new metro line and another is currently under construction. Organizers once dreamed of a new network of canals like in the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, but prosecutors blocked their construction in 2014-5 when, once again, they found irregularities in the public tenders. Other infrastructure projects, such as highways connecting Milan to the rest of the Northern Italy, are operating at a huge loss. This new infrastructure was only economically feasible with Expo money. Without it, it is racking up unsustainable debts for local governments.

The big enigma surrounding the Expo in its aftermath is a simple question: did it create any profits? There are many conflicting economic analyses of the project, but at the end of the day it is certain that Expo cost much more than the expected. From the three billion euros invested in the Expo itself, plus 11 billion more for related infrastructure projects, the managing company, Expo 2015 SpA, saved in its lockbox only 14 million euros, or 0.1% of the investment. Jerome Massiani, a researcher at Ca’ Foscari University, said that there was no gain economically speaking: the impact with that huge investment should have been considerably higher. Even Expo 2015 SpA’s CEO, Beppe Sala, ultimately admitted that it wasn’t exactly an overwhelming success.

In 2016, after the Expo closed its doors, Beppe Sala was elected the new mayor of Milan largely thanks to his popularity as “Mr. Expo.” Accused of misconduct and abuse of office, on 29 March Sala was acquitted by a Milan court. The trial of his co-defendants will begin on 7 June.

Ana səhifəAnalysisExpo chronicles: The experience of Milan 2015