Friday 14 December 2018

Italy's richest regions go to the ballot box in attempt to curb power of Rome

'The referendums have been inspired, in part, by the independence votes in Scotland and Catalonia.' (stock photo)
'The referendums have been inspired, in part, by the independence votes in Scotland and Catalonia.' (stock photo)

Nick Squires in Rome

For centuries, it was an independent kingdom ruled by a fierce tribe of warriors who swept across the Alps from central Europe.

Now Lombardy, one of Italy's richest regions and home to Milan, the country's finance and fashion capital, has a chance to claw back a little of that long-lost autonomy.

The region, along with neighbouring Veneto, which has an equally distinguished history of independence, will vote in a referendum today on whether to hold back money from the government in Rome and assume more responsibility in areas such as infrastructure, migration and education.

The referendums have been inspired, in part, by the independence votes in Scotland and Catalonia.

Campaigners from Veneto travelled to Barcelona at the time of the Catalonia referendum, waving flags depicting the winged lion of St Mark - the ancient symbol of Venice.

But there are precedents closer to home, too - five Italian regions, including Sardinia, Sicily and the partly German-speaking area of Trentino-South Tyrol, have enjoyed a high level of autonomy from Rome since 1946, when the constitution was drawn up.

Even the most ardent supporters of the referendums insist that this is not about independence or secession - it is purely a call for greater autonomy.

"This is not in any way about separating these regions from the rest of Italy," said Giovanni Orsina, a professor of politics at Luiss University in Rome. "There is a danger that the referendums will remind people in the north how unhappy they are with Rome."

Unlike the Catalan vote, which was ruled illegal by the Spanish government, the referendums are permitted by the Italian constitution, but they are not legally binding.

They are seen as a means by which the conservative Northern League, which controls both regions, can flex its muscles ahead of a general election.

But the League faces a balancing act - its push to keep more money in the pockets of northerners will erode its efforts to attract votes in the south. The general election must be held by May, with speculation that March 4 could be chosen.

Roberto Maroni, the president of Lombardy and a senior figure in the Northern League, claims that his region pays €54bn more in taxes to Rome each year than it receives from the government.

Veneto has similar complaints - the region, which includes Venice, sent €15.5bn more to Rome than it got back in public services last year.

The country was not unified as a modern state until 1861 and many Italians still speak their local dialect as their main language, as well as Italian.

A win for the yes vote would be a big challenge to the authority of Rome - Lombardy and Veneto are economic powerhouses that account for a third of Italy's GDP.


Sunday Independent

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