Recently, the xenophobic Lega Nord Party held an informal online poll on the independence of the Venetia Region of Italy. The results were trumpeted as a landslide “referendum” proclaiming the local population’s desire for independence. The question of Venetian autonomy has returned attention to the prevailing cultural and economic divisions between northern and southern Italy. These divisions are most pronounced in the northeast, where the economic landscape is characterized by small family-run enterprises. Furthermore, Venice boasts a millennial history as an independent republic that, at its height, controlled all of northern Italy east of Milan, the Dalmatian coast, and the Islands of Crete and Cyprus. Until the Great Recession, Venice and its surrounding area was one of the wealthiest regions in Italy. The city of Treviso still holds the highest rate of millionaires per capita in Italy.While large industrial groups based in Turin, Genoa, and Milan were historically built with unskilled labor imported from south of Italy, the family-run businesses of the northeast only began hiring unskilled labor recently, most of it coming from the Balkans. Further, those in the northeast are aggravated that the inefficient and self-serving political class in Rome is squandering their hard-earned taxes. As a result, northeastern Italians accept a united Europe, but not necessarily a united Italy.
The accusation of political irresponsibility is understandable, and in many respects, true. These beliefs have made Venetia, along with the neighboring regions of Lombardy and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a stronghold of the Lega Nord. Since 1991, when the Lega Nord was formed as a union of several regional independence movements, it has been a small but significant player in national politics. Its parliamentary presence – though minimal – was instrumental in the survival of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalitions despite poor election results.
Although allies on paper, Berlusconi never conceded to the Lega Nord’s requests for greater autonomy in the north. Even after the Lega Nord toned down its rhetoric, its proposal for “fiscal federalism” (i.e., granting regional governments the power to keep a greater portion of their tax revenues) did not pass parliament.
How did Berlusconi keep the support of the Lega Nord for close to 20 years without caving in to its legislative demands? The answer is simple: bribery. Berlusconi encouraged the Lega Nord to misallocate campaign funding, which in Italy is provided entirely by the state. Party leaders made several investments ranging from the stupid to the absurd, including the purchase of real estate, investments in a hedge fund in Tanzania, and a safe full of diamonds.
After years of denying that the global recession affected Italy, Berlucsoni conceded to domestic pressure and resigned from office in 2011. After consultation with parliamentary leaders, the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, summoned Mario Monti, a well-regarded university professor and one-time president of the European Council, to serve as prime minister of a “technocratic” government. Technocratic regimes are a bizarre occurrence in Italian politics, whereby in times of crisis, parliament summons various apolitical experts to run the country until the next election.
During Monti’s tenure, the parliament passed several austerity measures to save the country’s finances, including cutting social services and increasing taxes. However, they refused to curb the wasteful spending that had doomed Italy in the first place. Over the next two years, every political party took the opportunity to bash Mario Monti over the consequences of his failed policy. Additionally, legislation proposed by Monti to stimulate the economy at the cost of politically influential special-interest groups was continuously shot down in both chambers of parliament. In all this, the Lega Nord made the unwise move of vocally criticizing Berlusconi as his party voted in favor of the austerity measures.
Berlusconi’s reaction to the Lega Nord’s dissent was swift and merciless. He exposed the Lega Nord’s financial irregularities just as an exhausted and peeved Monti called for elections. Berlusconi’s media holdings were particularly thorough in their coverage of the scandal around election time. Umberto Bossi, the Lega Nord’s historic leader, was finally forced from power just before the elections. Additionally, key members of the party withdrew from national elections to stand locally, as key cities such as Treviso, Turin, and Milan fell into the hands of the center-left, along with the regional council of the Friuli region, northeast of Venetia. In the primary elections held a few months ago, Matteo Salvini, a young member of the European Parliament and an outspoken member of the party’s socialist fringe, was elected to the Lega Nord’s leadership.
However, if the upcoming European elections mirror recent national ones, Salvini might find himself out of elected office. The aforementioned online “referendum” has given him ammunition for national television. Unsurprisingly, the rally celebrating the success of the “referendum” was held in the recently lost city of Treviso, previously a stronghold of the Lega Nord run by party stalwart Giancarlo Gentilini for 12 years. Gentilini removed the benches from Treviso’s railway station when he wasn’t allowed to segregate them, and proposed dressing up all immigrants as rabbits to use them for target practice in preparation for the local hunting season. Gentilini, and now Salvini, are representative of a large component of the Lega Nord’s electoral base. Although this contingent has always been vocal during party rallies, it had never held elected office beyond the provincial level until now.
This has since changed. Salvini is a homophobe and racist who has advocated racial segregation, is openly demeaning towards southerners, and has criticized the archbishop of Milan for giving charity to gypsies. His success in any endeavor should be a cause for worry. The “referendum” is Salvini’s message to his radical base that he is one of them, as Umberto Bossi was one of them. And, as Umberto Bossi toned down and eventually abandoned his rhetoric, so will Salvini once he gets a taste of real power. If he has not already planned to do so, he will compromise with the center-right – his natural allies – whose political elites hail from the south, and require northern tax money to finance its corruption. After the next election, Venetian Independence will surely be off the table.
Yuri Serafini is a guest contributor from Milan, Italy. He currently studies Economics and Finance at Bocconi University.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.