No, these northern regions are not ‘Italy’s Catalonia’

Author thumbnail
Jessica Phelan - [email protected]
No, these northern regions are not ‘Italy’s Catalonia’
A supporter of the Northern League. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Three weeks after Catalonia held its sensational referendum on independence from Spain, two regions in northern Italy will ask their own people how they want to be governed.


Coincidence? Well... yes.

Some observers have drawn a parallel between the Catalan independence drive and regional Italian movements clamouring for greater autonomy. But timing aside, the similarities are few.

Referendums in Lombardy and Veneto – which each vote on October 22nd on whether they favour greater local powers or not – are set to be a very different affair to Catalonia’s tumultuous vote.

Here’s why.

It’s not about independence.

No one’s planning a “Free Republic of Lombardy” or “Independent Nation of Veneto”. Voters won’t be asked if they want to secede, only if they want their region to have more control over its own governance.

Veneto’s governor did attempt to call a referendum giving voters the choice between keeping 80 percent of the region’s tax revenues or seceding from Italy altogether, but dropped the idea when the Constitutional Court rejected it.

It’s not about a separate identity.

We’re not saying that people in the north of Italy don’t have identities of their own. They do. Take Venetians, for example, who speak a language as distinct from Italian as Catalan is from Spanish.

As far as these referendums are concerned, though, identity is not the driving factor.

It’s all about the money, according to the Northern League, the party that was founded on a dream of northern independence but has since adjusted its ambitions.

The Northern League once talked of creating a separate country called 'Padania'. Photo: Guiseppe Cacace/AFP

Lombardy and Veneto are two of the richest regions in Italy and they contribute heftily to the country’s tax coffers. "That might not be a problem if the taxes were well invested, but the truth is that €30 billion are wasted every year at a national level," Luca Zaia, Veneto’s Northern League president, said.

What really distinguishes Veneto and Lombardy from the rest of Italy, at least in the eyes of those who support devolution, is their efficiency, good governance and economic success.

Language, ancestry or history? Not in this fight.

It’s perfectly legal.

While Catalonia’s unauthorized referendum was met with fury in with Madrid, Rome has no complaints about the votes in Veneto and Lombardy.

That’s because the Italian Constitution allows any of Italy’s 20 regions to ask for more control over anything from foreign trade to transportation.

According to the law, Italian regions don’t even have to consult their voters first. Emilia-Romagna, for instance, has already opened talks with Rome about devolving certain powers, with no referendum beforehand.

In other words, Lombardy and Veneto’s votes are just as unnecessary as they are legal.

A Northern League supporter. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

It’s non-binding.

Part of what made Catalonia’s vote so scary for the rest of Spain was the Catalan government’s insistence that it was bound to act on the results – regardless of turnout.

Veneto and Lombardy, however, have no obligation to do anything after Sunday’s votes.

If it’s a yes, they’re sure to open talks with Rome about autonomy. If it’s a no, well, they can still pursue autonomy if they choose – though it would be a risky strategy a few months from Italy’s general election in 2018.

What’s more, in Veneto the government has said at least 50 percent of voters must take part for the result to count – insofar as it counts at all.

Most people aren’t that bothered about it.

Catalan separatists braved riot police and built barricades in order to cast their votes.

In Lombardy, organizers have made it just about as easy as it could be to take part, investing in electronic tablets that allow voters to have their say with a few touches of a screen – and they’re still not sure of getting even half of voters to show up.

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Lombardy's swanky voting tablets. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

According to a poll in early October, across Lombardy and Veneto combined the estimated turnout on Sunday will be around 42 percent.

It’s a measure of Italians’ feeling about the whole thing, which for many can be summed up as: “meh”.

“My impression is that in reality many people in Lombardy don’t consider the referendum to be important,” Silvia Canavero, a Milan native, told The Local.

It was the right-wing’s idea.

One reason to ignore these referendums, for some, is who called them: the far-right, anti-immigration, eurosceptic Northern League.

Many see it as the party’s bid to drum up support in its heartland before next year’s general election. A new generation of leaders are hoping to make the League a leading presence on the Italian right.

Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

A Northern League rally in Milan. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Contrast that with Catalonia – and Scotland too – where the charge for independence was led by pro-European liberals.

That said, the Northern League’s opponents haven’t objected to these referendums: the party’s allies in the centre-right (of course) support them, but even the centre-left Democrats don’t oppose them.

It’s wildly expensive.

Those special voting tablets don’t come cheap. They cost Lombardy around €24 million (the government says they’ll be donated to local schools after the vote).

In total, Lombardy is estimated to have spent somewhere between €40 million and €50 million on its referendum, while Veneto budgeted €14 million.

We’re not sure what Catalonia spent, but surely – surely – it wasn’t that much.

There is one thing Italy’s referendums have in common with the Catalan vote, though...

The answer in both Lombardy and Veneto is almost certain to be yes. Like in Catalonia, it’s likely to be those most set on changing the status quo who turn out to vote.

And while Italy’s referendums won’t cause anything close to the turmoil in Spain, that isn’t to say they’ll do nothing.

“In practical terms, nothing is going to happen soon,” said Italian economist Lorenzo Codogno, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.

But, he continued, yes votes in Veneto and Lombardy “would de facto open a Pandora's box”.

“The issue is likely to spread, and eventually, it will require a generalised approach by the next government and a reform of the constitution,” Codogno said. 

Supporters of the Northern League. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP



Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also