Two weeks ago, an online referendum on the independence of Veneto has gained the attention of the international media. This is not surprising: Venice is one the marvels of the world, and people rightly care for its future.
The referendum’s organizers boast the participation of over 2 million citizens from the region, which has 5 million inhabitants and 3.7 million people of voting age. These results were contested by some Italian newspapers, which argued that voters numbered no more than a few hundred thousands, but no conclusive evidence has been shown against the data claimed by the organizers.
On April 2nd, a number of “secessionists” were arrested, on allegations of preparing some sort of “violent” demonstration against the Italian Republic. The charges aren’t clear yet. The bulk of the secessionist movement (which considers these arrests a form of retaliation), however, is unmistakably peaceful and committed to a non-violent path.
A few years ago, two researchers from the Italian Central Bank estimated the fiscal residuum of the Northern Italian Regions. Leaving aside the “special autonomy Regions” (Regions that enjoy wide fiscal autonomy and do not contribute to transfers), the North fiscal residuum was negative, and worth 110 billion USD. This is roughly what the citizens of the same regions pay in income taxes. That is: without transfers, the North of Italy could have the same amount of public spending it enjoys now, and it could do away with income tax.
If something is going to happen in Veneto, it won’t be an uprise of micro-nationalism: but rather, a tax revolt. You could describe Italy as a country where the North pays taxes and the South consumes taxes. This picture is painted with a wide brush, but it is not incorrect. The gap between the two parts of the country has been there for ages, and it did not narrow, in spite of the fluxes of transfers. It is only natural that economic stagnation exacerbates the problem.
Now, one fact that has not gained media attention is that though the overwhelming majority of voters expressed themselves for an independent Veneto, they were also asked if they wanted Veneto to stay in the European Union, the Eurozone, and NATO. Those who also voted on these questions were basically in favor. So, secessionists do not want to go back to their own national currency, nor to raise barriers to the free flows of capital, goods, and persons within Europe. They are not aligned with French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen. They are closer to Catalonia’s secessionist, that, as Catalonia’s Minister of the Economy Andreu Mas Collel explained in a very interesting op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, are “strongly pro-European”.
As with Catalonia and Scotland, national governments may argue that allegiance to the European Union requires allegiance to the old nation states. This seems to me a rather bizarre idea. Ideally, if the EU is really a common framework of rules for all its citizens, it should be a proper setting for old national boundaries, that were often the result of conquer, to be discussed and redefined.
Whether the Venetian secessionists can succeed or not, it is hard to say. Most likely they won’t, at least in the short run. One of the Italian political parties, the Northern League, has campaigned for secession, federalism, local autonomy in the past. Nowadays the Northern League’s core message is anti-immigration and anti-euro. The party has been fading away as its historic leader, Umberto Bossi, has experienced a sharp physical decline after a stroke, and was later involved in a series of minor scandals. Twenty years of experience prove that if the League is sometimes an effective campaigner for secession, it has not been able to accomplish any major results.
My prediction would be that the Venetian secessionists may succeed, if the Northern League becomes irrelevant at the next European elections (that is, if it doesn’t reach the 4% threshold that you need to pass to enter the European parliament).
The League has expressed solidarity with the arrested Venetians and may use this alleged crack down on the secessionist movement as a powerful electoral lever. But if Venetian secession becomes the flag of a party which uses it to win votes in national and European elections, it will soon be trivialized into the political debate. You need the idea of independence to go beyond the traditional political cleavages, for it to become more than a rant.