In the last few years, referenda have profoundly disrupted and altered Europe. First, the referendum on British withdrawal from the European Union led a member state to begin the process of leaving. Then, a referendum in Italy deposed former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi after it was turned into a confidence vote on his leadership by opposition parties. Recently, Catalonia held a controversial referendum as it seeks to gain independence from Spain.
Now, the Veneto and Lombardy regions of Italy are due to vote this Sunday on increasing their autonomy. Located in the north of Italy and boasting several major cities, including Venice and Milan, these two regions are among the wealthiest in the country. The vote could deal another profound blow to the status quo in Europe.
The vote itself is nonbinding and would not immediately prompt a change in the relationship between the regions voting for autonomy and Rome. But it would demonstrate a clear desire from the people for greater autonomy and would lend regional leaders credibility to renegotiate additional powers and competencies from the Italian state. If Lombardy and Veneto vote to gain greater autonomy, they would still require an amendment to the Italian constitution to formally devolve power.
The Italian Constitution currently grants five regions — Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino Alto Adige and Sudtirol, Aosta Valley, and Friuli Venezia Giulia — autonomous rule under Article 116. Veneto and Lombardy could negotiate to have autonomous rule like these five regions, but if the issues driving these referenda are not addressed, this could be the opening act of a larger independence movement brewing in northern Italy.
The first major issue is the rampant nationalism in Veneto. In Italy, regional identity often supersedes allegiance to an Italian identity. Multiple attempts by regions in the north to gain greater autonomy in the last 25 years have been unsuccessful, but they demonstrate continued dissatisfaction with their obligations to the Italian state. In 2014, the Veneto region held an online vote that saw 89 percent support full independence from the Italian state.
Although the vote was unofficial and nonbinding, it demonstrated the region’s strong predilection towards independence and greater autonomy. In a clear progression, this vote capitalizes on the overwhelming support demonstrated in 2014 for greater autonomy. As seen in both Catalonia and Scotland, these movements for independence do not dissipate over time, but steadily progress.
The next outstanding issue, akin to the situation in Catalonia, is a deep economic divide between these two regions of Italy and the rest of the country. In 2015, the north of Italy had a surplus of 100 billion euros. The staggering economic disparity between the north and south provides politicians in the north of Italy the leverage to campaign for greater autonomy from Rome.
This is based simply on the argument that the rich northerners should not need to financially support the south of the country. Independence movements are often directly correlated to economic strength, as is the case with Catalonia and Scotland. Paradoxically, it is costly to hold these referenda, with the cost of the referendum in Veneto itself controversial at an estimated 14 million euros.
Finally, these two regions have political opportunists behind this push for greater autonomy. Veneto and Lombardy are led by mayors from the Northern League, a separatist, anti-establishment party that has been popular in northern Italy. The Northern League supports the secession of northern regions and the formation of an independent country they refer to as Padania.
Although the party is controversial in other parts of Italy, due to its overly nationalistic and blatantly anti-immigrant policies, Veneto and Lombardy have nevertheless elected the Northern League to power in local elections, which has paved the way for the upcoming referenda on autonomy. This Sunday’s votes move one step closer toward the realization of the Northern League’s dream of an independent north.
These referenda further challenge the established order in Europe and risk disrupting the precarious authority most states have over their wealthiest, most independent regions. The votes in northern Italy could spell the beginning of the end of the Republic of Italy, dramatically altering the political landscape of the region.
Jason C. Moyer is the program coordinator for the Center of Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.