Today, Italians in Lombardy and Veneto are going to vote for more autonomy. I’ve written about the background and content of this referendum in the past. In the mean-time, Catalonia has held its divisive referendum on independence from Spain. Early comments expected that the chaotic aftermath would bring down stronger ambitions for splitting up Italy. Nonetheless, the autonomy votes have surprisingly bipartisan support in Veneto and Lombardy. But also opposition, explicitly referencing Catalonia.
What to think about this referendum
It’s possible that the ruling social democrats (PD) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia just jumped on the bandwagon in order not to let this become a victory for the right-wing populists of Lega Nord. It’s equally possible that there is a shared majority advocating for autonomy. In any case, it’s important to keep in mind that all this is about is a big balloon of hot air. The question asked to citizens is vague and unclear. “Do you support more autonomy based on [referring to some specific legislation that allows Italian regions to negotiate autonomy privileges with the national government]?” Purposefully so. Fluffy questions avoid specific debates and create opportunities for easy victories within negotiations with the Gentiloni cabinet. While I believe that they have many wishes entering such negotiations, they will have much more realistic expectations as to what is possible. And in that sense, this whole thing is a marketing stunt. And much less that big thing that some international news outlets make out of it.
Apparently, Italians get this. Turnout is going to be low. The initiators hope for 34% of all possible voters to participate. Though that’s admittedly less than what some independent polling research suggests they might achieve. Naturally, absent will dominantly be those that oppose more autonomy. They won’t even participate in the game.
It’s a non-binding referendum anyways and all they want is some form of support for talks that they are going to have anyways. In fact, neighboring region Emilia-Romagna just very quietly signed a joined statement of intent together with Gentiloni, launching talks and presenting a road map for talks about autonomy. That region is governed by the PD. They made it a statement against what they call a costly and unnecessary referendum, emphasizing that they claim to want autonomy within solidarity, while they accuse their opponents to initiate an aggressive competition between regions. Obviously, that’s also just marketing talk. In the end, they all want more control over their money. Because they all want to be a bit more like the rich guys in the mountains.
Those rich guys have their own view on things. They applaud autonomy, but reject independence. Reinhold Messner, South Tyrol’s famous mountaineer, made an interesting contribution in the Catalan debate when he compared the two models of autonomy. The Catalans have cultural autonomy, and South Tyrol has financial autonomy, he claimed. And he also pointed at other autonomous Italian regions (read: Sicily) to argue that autonomy is not an automatic driver of economic well-being. The concept of powerful regions embedded in nation states embedded in Europe is deeply ingrained in the modern self-identity of South Tyrol. I don’t think that spirit is much shared with the autonomy folks over in Lombardy and Veneto.
The spice: Autonomy from autonomists in Belluno
Things get a bit more complicated and meaningful in Veneto’s Belluno province. It’s Veneto’s only full province that is entirely on Alpine territory. It includes important mountain destinations like Cortina d’Ampezzo and the nationalpark around the Tre Cime. Beautiful. Stunning. And the point is: Those are historically not actually Venetian.
The Cadore and the area around Cortina d’Ampezzo have originally been a part of Südtirol when that was still part of Austria. More Southern parts of the province (Fiera di Primiero)were part of Trentino. People spoke German (that’s completely gone) and Ladinian (that’s still rather wide-spread in some areas of the province). Then the First World War ended with a defeat for the Austrians, and Italy occupied Südtirol. The Italian fascists tried to eradicate the German and Ladinian language and gave Italian names to everything. Some of these names were historic, others just blatant bullshit. The Germans and Italians then agreed on re-settling the population into Nazi-Germany, until Italy left the war and the Nazis occupied it. When the Nazis were defeated, Italy claimed South Tyrol back, and the allies agreed. However, Italy then moved some parts into the province of Belluno, sealing the separation.
Until those in Belluno all together started to advocate for more autonomy. The current Venetian governor cleverly turns this around and uses it as an argument to grant more autonomy to Veneto itself. Fact is: Everybody sees the economic development of Südtirol and Trentino, and everybody wants to be part of it. And in Belluno, they hope that the historic ties of some parts of their province might help them to just switch from one region to the other.
Switching is not unheard of. In fact, just two weeks ago, the Italian senate allowed the municipality of Sappada to switch to the Friuli region. Sappada is still dominantly German-speaking, but historically was never part of South Tyrol. Instead, it belonged to Carnia, which today is part of Friuli. They held a (legal) referendum in 2008 with 95% votes supporting a switch to Friuli on a 75% turnout. (That’s a strong claim, dear secessionists around the globe!) Veneto and Friuli agreed long time ago, and now also the senate. From Sappada, we can learn something about the time line of events. Even if all these referendums find a majority this Sunday (something we will know by midnight), things are not going to change tomorrow.
Belluno, however, is facing yet another challenge. Remember that effectively they want to use their autonomy to switch to South Tyrol (more correctly: the province of Trentino-Alto Adige). But they don’t really want to take them. Or at least: not all of it. Trento (the capital of Trentino) says no, Bozen (the capital of South Tyrol) says yes only to the Ladinians. And anyways, only if that involves a good deal between South Tyrol and Rome. It’s obviously cherry picking. The Ladinian parts of the Belluno province are those with the historic ties to South tyrol, but they are also the economically stronger parts of the province.
To wrap this up: Lombardy and Veneto want autonomy from Italy. Belluno wants autonomy from Veneto. And some parts of Belluno want (and get) autonomy from Belluno. As if what we are looking at in the future is this.
On a more serious note: Yes, that’s all about the money for many. It’s about cultural identities for others. There are feelings of superiority when we are talking about the autonomy that Northern Italians want from Southern Italians. That’s not the case within the Northern provinces. They respect each other. Among them, it’s mostly about living together as equals, with equal privileges, and it’s about having the closest political ties with those who have the closest cultural ties, while not giving up on the ties with everybody else.
This does raise the question of how we want to proceed as Europeans. How can we avoid that superiority dominates necessary solidarity? My feeling is that at least we should listen to South Tyrolean ideas of greater European integration by means of the regions. Whatever that really means. But maybe that’s exactly the debate we need to have.