Northern Italy referendum: Regions seek greater autonomy

Northern league leader Matteo Salvini votes in Milan. [Flavio Lo Scalzo/EPA]

Two wealthy northern regions in Italy voted on Sunday (22 October) in favour of having increased independence from Rome in a non-binding referendum that set the stage for negotiations on more autonomy with the central government.

In Veneto, 57% of the total electorate turned out and voted almost unanimously in favour of increased autonomy (98%), whereas in Lombardy the turnout stopped at 40% of the electorate,  overwhelmingly supporting greater autonomy  (95%).

Italian regions vote in favour of autonomy in shadow of Catalonia crisis

Two wealthy regions of northern Italy voted overwhelmingly yesterday (22 October) for greater autonomy in referendums that could fan regional tensions in Europe at a time when Spain is striving to prevent Catalonia from breaking away.

Regional demands

The vote sought to legitimise long-standing regional demands to devolve a number of competences to the regional authorities (including justice, migration, education, and environmental protection) which are currently prerogatives of the central government.

But the most important demand emerging from the vote is that for greater “fiscal federalism”.

Lombardy and Veneto are two of the wealthiest regions in Italy, accounting for 34% of the national GDP.

Both regions contribute more to Rome’s coffers than what they get (€56 billion and €15,5 billion of fiscal deficit for Lombardy and Veneto, respectively), and are asking to retain a higher share (90%) of their fiscal revenue within regional borders.

Politics involved

The referendums were organised by the regional governors in Lombardy and Veneto, both belonging to the far right Northern League (Lega Nord) party.

In the past, the Lega Nord campaigned for the independence of “Padania” – a territory stretching across the Alps from France to Austria – but today the party is seeking to extend its appeal nationally as its young leader Matteo Salvini seeks a mandate in the 2018 elections.

Parties on the right (including Silvio Berlusconi’s resuscitated Forza Italia) supported the referendum, while the centre-left governing party (PD) was against the vote – but showed internal fractures.

Milan, a city held by a centre-left mayor closely linked to the party in Rome, registered the lowest turnout. But Bergamo, a nearby city also held by the PD party, was the city with the highest turnout.

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Rome’s response

Italian news agency Ansa reported that Italy’s minister of agriculture Maurizio Martina had said on Monday that, while the vote shows a clear signal from the electorate in favour of greater autonomy, Rome will “not discuss” fiscal matters or migration, as Italy’s constitution does not allow for a redistribution of competences in these areas.

According to a government spokesperson for regional affairs, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni “is ready” to enter the negotiation.

Catalan comparison

The referendums were consultative and non-binding. They focused on demands which are inscribed in Italy’s constitution and “were never about independence”, as confirmed by Veneto’s governor Luca Zaia.

However, they highlight Italy’s regional divide and analysts say that a strong “yes” vote in favour of independence cold re-open the North-South dispute, which has been a constant headache for Italy’s governments since its unification in the late 19th century.

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