If Veneto and Lombardy will succeed in gaining autonomy, the gap with the South would increase even more
The change of the Italian government brought relief to the public opinion and the international community, but the extent to which this government and its policy will differentiate itself from the previous one has not become clear, at least so far. Many issues remain open: border controls and an effective migration management strategy, the TAV (Turin-Lyon high speed railway) and, among others, the request for differentiated autonomy coming from three Northern regions — namely Veneto, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna. As a Venetian currently living and working in Trentino-South Tyrol, I feel particularly involved in this story and I apologize in advance for the (involuntary) attention devoted to these two regions in the following lines.
In October 2017, a non-binding referendum was held in Veneto and Lombardy asking for more devolved powers, namely a certain degree of autonomy with regard to the national government. In both regions it was almost a landslide in favour of autonomy, with a turnout of 57% in Veneto and of 38% in Lombardy. The region Emilia-Romagna, on the contrary, did not hold any poll, as not explicitly requested by the Constitution. The correct expression to be used here is ‘differentiated autonomy’ (autonomia differenziata), something foreseen by the Italian Constitution under Article 116 for the regions under ordinary statute. The central government could in fact confer these regions “particular autonomy conditions” on certain legislative issues. Five regions, namely Trentino-South Tyrol, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Valle d’Aosta, Sicily and Sardinia, are already under special statute for specific historical reasons, among which the presence of linguistic minorities and/or of independence movements.
As a result of these requests, the issue has been brought to the negotiating table of the previous government, but no agreement has been found so far. Apparently, the slowness of the negotiation and the obstacles to the autonomy project did not deter some politicians like the President of the Veneto region Luca Zaia from his campaign. Zaia, in fact, handed some days ago his dossier on the autonomy project for Veneto to the brand new Ministry of Regional Affairs. The autonomy envisaged for his region is characterized by strong powers in the field of education, environment and migration, therefore ranging from foreign to internal policy.
Behind the scenes
The problems with this negotiation are multifold. First of all, these referendums have their roots in the claims brought by the Northern League of its founder Umberto Bossi in the ‘80s-90’s. The original name of the current party of Matteo Salvini was in fact Northern League for the independence of Padania, with ‘Padania’ being a fictitious macro-region composed by the Northern Italian regions around the Po valley. The initial wish of the party was that of secession of the North from the rest of Italy, but, when it became clear that the request was unfeasible, secession turned into devolution of powers from the central government and, last but not least, in fiscal federalism. These concepts have been frequently confused with one another. To make the concept easier to explain, the initial aim of the Northern League did not differ much from the claims of Catalonia, historically striving for the complete independence from Spain, while federalism would have meant creating a state similar to Germany or Belgium, where each region retains a degree of autonomy on certain matters.
With the advent of Matteo Salvini, “Northern” has been removed from the official denomination of the League and the party supporters extend today from the Alps to the Mediterranean. However, Salvini defends the claims of differentiated autonomy to the detriment of other Italian regions, something that Southern Italians should not forget. If Veneto and Lombardy will succeed in transferring some competences from the central government and retaining more taxes, the gap with the South would increase even more.
The North-South imbalance, the heritage of the Northern League and the tiny majority of the new government, are all reasons why politicians at the national level should handle this issue with care. A large part of Northern constituencies remains loyal to the League, also at the regional level in Veneto and Lombardy (and more recently in Trentino-South Tyrol), and are disappointed by the way the central government managed the economic downturn in the last decade. Recall that also Veneto, one of the most productive regions in Italy, is registering high rates of high-skilled, young emigration, towards the more attractive Milan or foreign countries.
Whatever the content of such a differentiated autonomy, this issue could be framed within the broader political discourse of a ‘multi-speed’ or ‘two-speed’ Europe, according to which economic and political integration should proceed at a variable speed, according to the political situation in each country. The dangers of such an approach are clear: well-off countries (or regions) will perform better and better, increasing the gap with a laggard periphery. Unfortunately, this strategy does not always work (see the Brexit case) and does not guarantee alone a promising, affluent future: more autonomy in some fields requires a good administration, investments in human capital and infrastructure, and should be constantly updated, in line with the needs of the citizens and of the times. This is something that autonomous and ‘aiming-to-autonomy’ regions and countries should not overlook.