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Italy pins hopes for economic revival on Milan Expo

After a run-up marred by corruption scandals, delays and fights over costs, the Expo 2015 world fair in Milan opened to the public on Friday amid hopes that the event will help return the recession-bound Italian economy to growth.

“The bet we’ve made on Expo is that it will restart the country,” Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, said as he arrived for Thursday’s opening ceremony, held in the shadow of Milan’s soaring Gothic cathedral and featuring recitals by opera singer Andrea Boccelli and pianist Lang Lang.

The most high-profile recent world’s fair was staged in Shanghai in 2010 — a vast, glittering event estimated to have cost as much as $50bn that showcased the growing wealth and power of China.

But with Italy struggling to come out of more than a decade-long stagnation, the mood in Milan — where the sound of building works that has filled the air for the past month continued well into the night — is markedly different.

Expo 2015’s price tag will be a rather more modest €3bn.

Still, seeking to play to its strengths, Italy hopes Milan’s world-class cuisine, fashion and design will provide a lure for millions of visitors. Organisers expected 20m people to visit the event over the next six months, including more than 1m from China. Italian officials say crucially it will be a platform to attract foreign investment.

Italy has over the past 12 months become the biggest destination for Chinese investment, ahead of the US and UK.

Riccardo Monti, head of Italy’s trade agency ICE, called the world fair an “amazing occasion to present to the world Italian leadership in food, agriculture and related technologies”, with thousands of business delegates expected to visit Italian companies over the next six months.

The world fair’s working title, “Feeding the planet. Energy for Life”, is aimed at showcasing Milan’s world-leading restaurants and consumer goods brands, as well as Italy’s agri-food business, which made €27bn of exports last year.

Francesco Galietti, a foreign policy expert at Policy Sonar, a Rome-based consultancy, said a legacy of the event may be Italy’s emergence as a target for acquisitions in food and agriculture at a time when food supply is a growing focus from Russia to the Middle East.

Intesa Sanpaolo, the bank, expects Expo 2015 to boost growth locally by 0.7 per cent, helping bring Italy out of a three-year recession.

However, the Expo has been mired in controversy ever since Milan, then in the hands of allies of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, won the right to host the event in 2008.

Preparations reached their nadir a year ago when a senior Expo manager was arrested along with six businessmen and politicians, following an investigation that drew parallels with the corruption scandals in Italy’s commercial capital that brought down the postwar political order in the early 1990s.

The scandal nearly resulted in Italy being stripped of the event and made several countries, including the US and UK, delay their decision to participate, according to senior diplomats.

Italy subsequently appointed an independent anti-corruption tsar, Raffaele Cantone, and asked the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to measure its progress in fighting corruption.

Even Expo’s theme of food has been contentious, with many condemning the decision to name McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as main sponsors.

“The presence of McDonald’s means the planet can continue to gorge itself on fast food or junk food without concern for our own well being,” said the Slow Food association, a group that campaigns against fast-food culture.

There remain concerns over security at a time when social cohesion in Italy has been hit by the recession and the unemployment rate is 13 per cent.

Italian police have over the past week raided several buildings on the outskirts of Milan and seized what they said were the basics for making Molotov cocktails.

On Friday, a cordon of more than 2,000 riot police blockaded central Milan as a traditional peaceful May Day march of tens of thousands of people was marred by violent skimishes.

Reports locally said demonstrators set fire to two vehicles, threw incendiary device and used burning refuse bins to block roads as they clashed with police. The authorities responded by firing tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowds.

Anonymous, the computer hacking group, succeeded in bringing down Expo’s online ticket service overnight, according to the website of newspaper La Repubblica.