Why North Italian Regions Want More Autonomy, Not Independence

Elena Maslova, senior lecturer at the Moscow-based MGIMO University and senior research fellow at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, explains why the recent referendums in the northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto are so different from the one held in Catalonia.

More than 150 years after Italian unification, the nation still faces the issue of sharing authorities between the central government and its 20 regions, including five autonomies, which have this status due to ethnic minorities living there.

Apart from the traditional “southern question”, i.e. economic backwardness of the country’s southern regions, Italy has the so-called “northern question.” Being the country’s economic powerhouse, the northern regions are disgruntled at the central government policies, which often lead to tax revenues from the North being channelled to the development of the South. It is this kind or North vs South dichotomy that Lega Nord built its programme on. In particular, one of elements of the Lega Nord strategy is to create and manipulate the image of the enemy. Originally, Lega Nord saw this enemy in migrants from Italy’s South, regarding them as part of another culture and modus vivendi.

The Southern model contrasts deeply with that of Lombardy and North, with its labour discipline and higher living standards. Since late 1980s, Italy has experienced a growth in immigration (prior to that, it was a country of mass emigration). As a result, Lega Nord’s former enmity toward the Southerners has transformed into hatred of foreigners who are being accused of the growth in crime, unemployment and other social plagues. Thus, the “enemy” image has expanded.

Back in the 1990s, Lega Nord believed that the “northern issue” could be solved by the creation of Padania, an independent state, whose proposed name is derived from the river Po. Its independence and international recognition were to be achieved by purely democratic means. In late 1990s, Lega Nord backed down on the idea of independence, but proclaimed instead its intent to achieve broad federalization in Italy by supporting devolution, the transfer of competences from the centre to regions. Last week’s referendum was about autonomy, not independence, which is consistent with Lega Nord’s political concept.

First of all, the regions are striving to achieve fiscal autonomy and reconsideration of issues related to the transfer of tax revenues to regional budgets and that of the state. Independence is not on the agenda, which the party leaders confirm themselves by brushing aside any analogies with the referendum in Catalonia. The primary reason for this is that the flourishing North is not interested in destabilization of political and economic situation in the country.

President of Veneto Luca Zaia has compared the referendum results to the fall of the Berlin Wall. One can say that the idea of devolution, shelved by the Italian government in mid-2000s, has gained new momentum. Even though the referendum is purely consultative in nature, the Italian government cannot ignore its results. The cabinet has already said that it is ready for negotiations, which are to begin soon. After the referendum results were announced, Luca Zaia said that Veneto would strive to achieve the autonomous region status, which will require modification of the Italian Constitution. Meanwhile, Lombardy says it does not want autonomy and prefers to preserve the existing administrative division. Nevertheless, both regions are going to stand together at the upcoming negotiations with the national government and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. While constitutional amendments to the regional statutes are unlikely, Article 116 of the Italian Constitution makes it possible to confer additional special forms and conditions of autonomy on other regions by state law.

Any analysis of the situation should consider the factor of the upcoming parliamentary elections. Lega Nord is interested in strengthening its positions on the Italian political scene (it will most likely enter a coalition with other right-centre parties, including that of Silvio Berlusconi). In addition, intra-party competition is growing inside Lega Nord. As of today, Matteo Salvini, the party’s secretary general is a candidate to the premiership, but it cannot be ruled out that in the near future Luca Zaia will compete with him for the position.
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