55m polls in Lombardy and Veneto are non-binding, but could send strong message to Rome
Two of Italy’s richest regions are holding referendums on greater autonomy on Sunday, in the most recent push by European regions to seize more power from the centre.
Lombardy and Veneto, between them home to a quarter of Italy’s population, are attempting semi-autonomy, giving them more control over their finances and administration.
Although legally non-binding, the workout is the last ripple in a wave of referendums on greater autonomy across Europe in recent years, from Scotland in 2014 to Brexit last year and Catalonia in September.
Although both regions have in the past campaigned for complete independence from Rome, their leaders have made it clear the ballots are about autonomy and not secession.
Some insight into the dynamics can be gleaned from the example of Sappada, a mountainous town in Veneto that straddles the different regions margin with Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
A skiing and hiking paradise, the cities is on the verge of becoming the first in Italy to switch regions to become part of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, one of Italy’s five semi-autonomous regions. The plan was approved by the Italian government in September after a lengthy bureaucratic process.
” The reasons for people wanting to be part of Friuli are differed: we have our own dialect, which originates from German, and culturally we seem a little bit closer to Friuli ,” Manuel Piller Hoffer, the mayor of Sappada, told the Guardian.
” But the main one is economic: living next door to a semi-autonomous region, people insure advantages that they don’t have. They appreciate finances being controlled better, a better health service and sustainable investments being built- they watch a higher standard of living .”
It is this kind of freedom that Veneto and Lombardy crave. The regions, both is presided over by governors from the far-right Northern League- a party that in the past has campaigned on a platform of independence- are likewise use the votes to send a message to Rome, hoping that evidence of strong assistance among the population for special powers will strengthen their hand in negotiations with the government.
Technically the plebiscites, which are expenditure more than EUR5 5m to host, are unnecessary. The Italian constitution permits each region( there are 20 altogether) to seek to widen their powers via dialogue with the central government, without the need of a public election. Emilia-Romagna, a northern region is presided over by a centre-left Democratic party administration, triggered such a process on Wednesday.
” Regions chiefly need to prove that their reports are in order. If there are deficits in the different regions budget then this is an obstacle to recognising greater powers ,” said Gian Candido De Martin, a statute prof at Rome’s Luiss University.” This is the route Emilia-Romagna has chosen to take , not a referendum .”
However, Luca Zaia, the president of Veneto, and Roberto Maroni, his counterpart in Lombardy, assertion that attempts at the negotiations with Rome have been ignored and a referendum is the only viable route.
Their main incentive for achieving greater autonomy is fund: Zaia and Maroni claim their regions each send more than EUR5 0bn more of their taxes each year to Rome than they get in return.
Both regions crave more control over immigration as well as their education systems and industries. Lombardy, with the business hub of Milan as its capital, and Veneto, the producer of one of Italy’s most precious exports, prosecco, respectively generate around 20% and 10% of the country’s total GDP.
The calls for greater autonomy are expected to pass the test by a wide margin, despite strong opposition from business leaders including Luciano Benetton, co-founder of the Veneto-based robe chain.
The public votes are backed by the insurgent Five Star Movement, while the ruling Democratic party has urged its supporters to abstain.
Alessandro Alfieri, a Democratic regional councillor for Lombardy, said this was mainly because the party recognized the referendums as a garbage of money.
” We all agree with having more control over things like scientific research, education and innovation, but do not agree with throwing away over EUR5 5m ,” he said.” The referendum was a great expenditure and not very useful, specially if you can do the same as Emilia-Romagna .”
Alfieri said another reason for Maroni and Zaia was to try to bolster support for the Northern League before elections. As the party’s president, Matteo Salvini, strives to attract more voters in Italy’s south, there are fears about losing voters in the north.
” While Salvini tries to talk to the whole of Italy, they are losing assistance in some parts of the north, so this kind of referendum is being used to try to retain supporting, especially with talk of maintaining more fund within the territories ,” said Alfieri.
Marco Gasparinetti, from Venice, the capital of Veneto, said there was little support among Venetians for the Northern League but most people would vote yes in the referendum as they cherished getting decisions constructed closer to home.
Like Sappada, they look towards their semi-autonomous neighbours of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige with envy.” Especially with our history, being surrounded by regions with special powers is uncomfortable for us ,” he said.