After Catalonia, Italy steps up for autonomy votes
Different Italian regions will have looser or closer ties with Rome as they wish (or vote for). It could have been a model for the European Union, if only they weren’t so scared of democracy
The referendum in Catalonia has been, for me, deeply disturbing. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, the world was treated to the sight of state police dragging young women from polling booths by their hair, teargas and rubber bullets fired on citizens, all for trying to vote.
This is not a good look in a modern country, and you could be forgiven for thinking Rajoy’s government has not progressed much from the era of General Franco. Even if you accept that the referendum was illegal, this has been a mess.
So it might come as a surprise that another European country is going to be brave enough to hold regional specific referenda: Italy. This month there will be votes in Lombardy (which contains the business capital, Milan) and the wealthy Veneto (Venice) on ‘autonomy’. The Italians hope to teach the rest of the world how it is done.
The two (out of 20 Italian regions) amount to a quarter of Italy’s population and are as rich as anywhere in Europe.
The vote has been organised by the separatist, anti-immigrant Northern League which until recently had a single policy: independence for what it called Padania; the part of northern Italy which surrounds the valley of the river Po, which runs west-east, joining the sea just south of Venice.
Under its new leader Matteo Salvini the Northern League has watered down its independence demands (something the Catalans might consider). The referendum is largely symbolic and pleasingly vague.
It refers to the section of the Italian constitution which allows different regions to have different levels of autonomy. This could encompass a variety of competences, from the appointing of magistrates to safety at work legislation.
But if no one seems quite to understand exactly what sort of autonomy will be involved, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind what this is all about: money.
There is much concern in Italy’s rich north that from their high taxes huge sums are transferred to the south where they enrich a few gangsters and build pointless infrastructure projects.
Thus if the referendum passes, and it might well, negotiations will have to start with the government as to exactly what the two regions will get. These negotiations will founder unless the Northern League, together with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, get into power. But the way things are going, they might.
A step forward will have been made, Salvini will enhance his reputation by looking like a winner, nothing much will have changed, and there will have been no breach of the constitution. Even the EU has given the tacit nod to it. What’s not to like?
Europe’s silence on the Catalan fiasco speaks volumes. One question not often asked is why they aren’t delighted. The development plan for Europe is still in place (if on the back burner): nations will lose their existence in favour of regional divisions such as North East England, the Peleponnese or the Auvergne.
These regions will have direct relationships with the EU institutions; give to or receive money from the central treasury. In this way future Europeans will have no sense of national identity, just a feeling of European belonging. France will cease to be France as such, Poland will cease to be Poland. It is one of the main reasons I campaigned for Britain to leave.
Catalonia would have been one of these regions, as would Lombardy and the Veneto. So why wasn’t Brussels supportive? Why isn’t it promoting independence for Bavaria or Flanders?
The problem, as we have seen from Mr. Rajoy, is that the nation states do not want to be broken up. The unelected helmsmen of the European project need the individual countries on side at the moment, to settle a bit more integration, resolve a few internal issues.
It is only at some time in the future that they will be invited to collude gradually in their own annihilation. All this, like Brexit, has happened too soon for the boys in Brussels.
The Italians are showing that regional management can be done quietly and with some elegance. Different regions will have looser or closer ties with Rome as they wish (or vote for). It could have been a model for the European Union, if only they weren’t so scared of democracy.
Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here
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