Can we spend money? And how, the Sicilian authorities tell the EU inspectors who’ve come from Strasbourg. And not just peanuts. Because we do things big here or we don’t them at all: after all, we’re spiritual heirs to the munificent, magnificent (Holy Roman Emperor) Frederick II, the Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World), whose palace of velvet and gold is now the seat of the island's parliament. So there’s nothing left of the €8.5 billion that Europe lavished on the area from 2000 to 2007 to stop the development gap, not even the crumbs, as the regional authorities insist on pointing out.

Pity that in the same report that concludesAgenda 2000 – the rain of gold from Brussels that nurtured the island in those bumper years – the administration candidly admits that the money served no purpose at all. €700 million to improve the water supply? In 2000, the water supply was “stop-and-flow” for 33% of Sicilian households, now 38.7% have water worries. Incentives to entice off-season tourists? Cost €400 million, enough to buy up an airline. And yet the ranks of those thankless tourists haven’t swelled, but petered out: from 1.2% in 2000 to 1.1% in 2007. And as to the €300 million invested in alternative energy projects great and small: it’s true, there isn’t a single hillock without its windmill now, but Sicilian output is stuck at 5% of total consumption, as against an average 9.1% for Southern Italy as a whole.

For Sicilians, it’s always the same old story

And so on and so forth, including a mountainous €230 million spent on railway improvements – used to overhaul a mousy 8 km of the grid. Too bad for all those Sicilians who, to traverse 400 km between Palermo and Messina, have to take a 4½-hour ride on a single track railway, not counting unforseeable stopovers.

Moving right along, it turns out that €300 million has been sprinkled on budding integrated waste management schemes in cities that are still wading through nightmarish mounds of rubbish. The funds earmarked for the construction of 260 dumps and 64 recyling centres and waste-processing plants have failed to raise Sicily above the 6% recycling mark, though the target was 35%.

Set out squarely in black and white like this, it’s a patent paradox. And yet it’s nothing to fret over for Sicilians, who aren’t fazed by anything anymore: they simply assume that behind the good intentions, the high-sounding acronyms, the European myths, it’s always – or almost always – the same old story. The emperor has no clothes, no question about it: but he was already stripped bare by those seven bumper years of subsidies scattered on 43,000 projects, parceled out to the beat of pork-barrelling patronage and dispensations, in the anterooms of local government chambers.

A cake was besieged by hundreds of voracious companies

Those funds were even used to pay 29,000 foresters and thousands of cataloguers (of cultural heritage sites), as well as for “competitive intelligence”, “regional marketing” and “image-building” schemes. Needless to say, the money was not used to lay a single brick of such great works – waterfronts, motorways, marinas – as those that have face-lifted countries like Spain and Portugal. With the notable exception of the island’s museums and historical monuments, which have in fact been renovated.

This cake was besieged by hundreds of voracious companies and organisations, entities born and raised to hook and reel in EU funds. They scramble about between “schemes”, “axes”, “projects”, juggling esoteric acronyms like EDF,ERDF,EAGF orEFF*, tapping into programmes likeEqual,Urban, Leader orInterreg. A whole new class of white-collar professionals is emerging, prized and pampered by companies and public institutions alike for their miraculous ability to fish for subsidies in the great sea of Agenda 2000.

This colossal social shock absorber was created in 1994, under the previous European scheme, and is now eating away at new manna: €6.6 billion for the 2007–2013 scheme, which has changed in name (now OP for “Operating Plan”) but not in substance. And then there’s the four billion in the RDP, rural development funds that Sicilian governor Raffaele Lombardo has already promised to half the island – though Berlusconi has yet to consign a single euro to his hands. This will be the last shower of golden rain, seeing as Europe is going to shift the focus of aid to the EU newcomers in Eastern Europe.

Translated from the Italian by Eric Rosencrantz