About three weeks ago, I saw an interesting billboard ad while I walked the girl to the pool. It didn’t state much. It only announced that there was going to be a referendum on autonomy on October 22, 2017, and it was sponsored by the regional government.
It does not need much imagination to understand the underlying motivation. Italy’s North is complaining for long that they are sponsoring the inefficiency and corruption of the South. In fact, one of Italy’s many influential populist parties, the Lega Nord, was founded with the ambition to secede the Northern states and form an independent country called Padania, certainly involving Lombardy and Veneto, and in their best imagination any region with territories North of the Po. Needless to say that it is just one of many Italian absurdities that said party recently also gained popularity in the South – most likely because equally recently they focused more on complaining against immigration. Just one should not be fooled to think that the party’s Northern supporters have given up on their prejudices over Italians from Rome, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily. That said, also Italy’s governing social democrats (PD) support the referendum, as does the major opposition force of 5 Stelle – both more for political rather than substantial reasons.
This referendum is an expression of that. It was initiated by Lombardy’s regional council. An identical referendum is going to take place in Veneto. In both regions, regional councils are dominated by Lega Nord. They understood that full independence would never find a majority. But autonomy?
According to the latest polls that I have seen (July 11, 2017), 44% would be in favor of autonomy, while 15% would oppose it and 40% of voters would still not know what to vote for. This is a huge advantage for autonomy. And, hey, autonomy sounds good! Just what exactly does it imply? My best guess is that this explains why so unusually many voters are still undecided. In fact, only 54% of participants of this survey indicated they knew what the referendum was about.
So, what is it about? Well, Italy is organized in regions and provinces, but it’s not a federal state like Germany. Most power lies with the central government in Rome. There are a few noteworthy exceptions. Autonomy exists for the regions of Aosta, Friuli, and Trentino-Alto Adige (that’s the region which includes the German speaking part of Italy – Südtirol). Autonomy for Trentino-Alto Adige is particularly far reaching, and notably includes budget autonomy. It’s the model that many Italians are jealous of. For Aosta, autonomy is much more restricted and effectively focuses more on culturally important aspects.
Lombardy’s potential autonomy is not further specified. It would be left to negotiate between Lombardy and Italy’s central government if the referendum went through. By itself, the referendum is not binding. It’s also completely vague what Lombard should do with its autonomy, but small business owners hope for lesser taxes, higher financial support, and more and faster investments into infrastructure – the usual things. The general public wants to take over the model of Trentino-Alto Adige. Some political scientists express hope that this might actually initiate a debate about a general reform of Italy’s centralized structure, so that at the end there will be a transformation of the whole country towards a federalist system. After all, also the Southern regions might benefit from more autonomy, as long as there will not be again a tight grip of the Mafia on regional governments. Without a proper mechanism of transfer (similar to Germany’s solidarity tax to support infrastructure investments in the federal states that formerly were part of the German Democratic Republic), I doubt that would work.
I’m a federalist (German style), so I’m eventually sympathetic to more autonomy for the regions. However, its origin in the minds of Lega Nord give it a strange taste. Also, I doubt things will change fast. After all, this is a political move first, and for the time being, the prevailing political motives seem satisfied with a referendum itself. And, finally, it’s a distraction from larger changes that the country needs on a central level.
By the way: I had not seen one single billboard advertising announcing the referendum on the constitutional reform that so spectacularly failed last fall. Instead, Milan is full now of white billboards and banners on taxis announcing this autonomy referendum. Think about it.