A poster with instructions about Lombardy’s autonomy referendum is seen at a polling station in Lozza near Varese, northern Italy, October 22, 2017.
By Chiara Valenti, a 3rd year International Relations Undergraduate at King’s College London.
Throughout its 150 years of unification, Italy has suffered from a north-south divide based on an array of socio-economic shortcomings between regions. Regionalist parties in Italy have adopted this disparity to fuel their political agenda and back political claims. The most recent of European regionalist events has sourced from this issue, as the Lega Nord – Italy’s North-based regionalist party – called for a referendum in two of Italy’s most prosperous regions asking the respective populations if they wanted their regional representatives to move for greater regional autonomy. This request has fallen under criticism for different reasons, but a main concern is if the consequent vote will deepen the existing divide within Italy. This article will first examine the motivations for the referendums and their critiques; then analyse the Lega Nord’s political project and offer critiques; then examine the reasons for the economic divide between the North and South of Italy; and finally, conclude by arguing that the results of these referendums will not be what deepens this chasm between North and South but the rhetoric from which they stem and Italy’s inability to profit from the South’s undervalued resources.
On October 22, 2017, the latest of regionalist events in Europe took place, as the political party known as Lega Nord (Northern League) held referendums in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto requesting greater regional autonomy. Such autonomy would give the regions more control over their finances and administration. It is worth noting that unlike the Catalonian referendum, this referendum was legal as the Italian Constitution allows it. Nonetheless, the party’s move was brought under fire by a variety of criticisms. Firstly, the plebiscites costed 55 million euros, a cost that is essentially unnecessary as the Italian constitution gives each region the ability to expand their powers via dialogue with the central government without public vote. This process has recently been undertaken by the Emilia-Romagna region. Lega Nord’s Luca Zaia and Roberto Maroni, the party’s leaders for the Veneto and Lombardy regions respectively, claim that their attempts at dialogue with Rome have been ignored despite proof that says otherwise. Secondly, the call for the public vote is an evident attempt to bolster support for Lega Nord before the upcoming March 2018 elections, as greater autonomy has been a long-standing promise of the party. Finally, the party’s rhetoric behind the incentives for greater autonomy are a representation of the greater socio-economic chasms between the North and South of Italy that have plagued the country since its unification 150 years ago.
Lombardy makes up 20% of the country’s GDP with Milan as its economic capital, while Veneto makes up another 10% of the GDP as the main exporter of Prosecco. Zaia and Maroni argue that in addition to their taxes, they each send 50 billion euros more than what they get in return in public spending because of their regions’ economic prosperity. Consequently, the Lega Nord argues that as a result of bureaucracy and a biased central government the South reaps the benefits of the North’s hard work. The party claims that by achieving greater regional autonomy they would have greater economic freedom, in addition to more control over immigration, education systems, and industries within the region. Accordingly, the referendums were held to send a message to Rome that the people of the Lombardy and Veneto regions are determined to gain more autonomy. The result, 95% of voters who cast ballots, 57% being in Veneto and 39% in Lombardy, opted to vote “yes” to more autonomy, according to officials in both regions. This result is not surprising as these regions have always been major supporters of the Lega Nord’s anti-South rhetoric and motion to detach from Italy to different extents. However, to understand whether or not, and why, these referendums could determine an even stronger north-south division in Italy, it is necessary to examine the reasons for this divide and the ways in which the Lega Nord has used and exacerbated these chasms.
The Lega Nord’s political project:
Lega Nord is one of the many regionalist political parties in Italy, and its demands for greater regional autonomy are part of a wider trend amongst regional parties across Europe. Lega Nord does differ from other forms of European regionalism, such as those in Catalonia, in that the party’s political project is not based in an area with historic claims to nationhood. Rather, the party has opted to invent an ethnicity for the North of Italy, based on the rejection of the concept of the Italian nation-state called Padania. Padania, the Latin term for the basin of the River Po, has never existed geographically or historically, but the Lega Nord has attempted to construct it so to justify its political claims for the protection of the region’s economic interests. The party has been successful in creating this ‘ethnicity’ by exploiting the issues faced by citizens of northern Italy, through interpreting and adapting their concerns to its own political project. Lega Nord’s argument is that the South of Italy is the bearer of all wrong within Italian politics and society, and Italy’s central government is corrupt, wasteful, bureaucratic, and biased towards the South. This strong anti-Southern discourse is the main element within Lega Nord’s political agenda, and it is what allows it to create a socio-cultural identity for the North by using the South as the ‘other’ to fear.
Many of the claims the party makes in regards to the South are misleading and inaccurate stereotypes, but the party’s ability to reproduce such anti-South sentiment in the North is the reason for its growth. One of the party’s main arguments throughout its existence, and one of the main push factors for the referendum, are the economic differences between the North and the South which the party ascribes to the alleged contrasts in culture and mentality, claiming that the north has a superior value system and culture than the lazy and egoistic South. “Although this clearly misses the real and full explanation for the socio-economic differences between the North and South of Italy, it is a powerful discourse for the party and one which is seen as a correct interpretation by a good deal of supporters and activists of the party.” From these inaccurate identity depictions, Lega Nord has argued that the South maintains its languor as it reaps the benefits of the North’s high-producing economy, explaining the demand for greater regional autonomy to better reap the benefits of their economy alone. In othering the South the Lega Nord has managed to articulate a socio-cultural identity for the North. It has utilised racist ideology, based on cultural rather than biological differentialism, and accompanied it with a racist subtext through which negatively evaluated characteristics are attributed to the ‘other’.
The origins of the North-South divide:
This chasm between the North and South of Italy has been a long-standing feature of the Italian nation-state from its creation. It developed after unification in 1861, and stemmed from the South’s inability to match the industrial progress of the north. However, it is an inability that is linked to a broader, national development failure rather than the inferior value system and culture tied to the South by the Lega Nord. After Italian unification the main factor that separated the North and South of the country was the process of industrialization. While the North was able to industrialize because of its natural endowments that attracted factories, the South did not. This is because Italy began industrializing through the second wave of industrialization instead of the first. Had the state developed the technological know-how correctly, Italian development would have been faster and more contemporary, as it would have depended on human resources, with proper training across the territory, leading to a more balanced development between North and South.
As the industrial divide became more and more evident in the post-WWII era the Italian government made massive policy interventions in favour of the Mezzogiorno, the South, through what was called the Cassa del Mezzogiorno. This policy’s goal was to promote economic development in the South through the creation of infrastructure via funding from the more prosperous Northern regions. However, this policy did not create the conditions for autonomous development. Rather, supporting capital-intensive activities instead of promoting tourism for example, in an area so abundant in labour as the South of Italy, turned out to be short-sighted—a mistake probably attributable to the economic milieu of the time. These mistakes became evident during the 1970s crisis, which involved the collapse of a large part of the new heavy industries in the South. Once the top-down strategy failed Italy lacked a new or consistent approach, and instead regional policy was redirected towards unproductive expenditures, in such a way that it probably even favoured the enforcement of organized crime and the decline of social capital.” Nevertheless, the South was crucial to the economic development in the North, as it was the South of Italy which served the dual purpose of providing an extensive market for products produced in the North as well as a source of relatively cheap and skilled labour. Therefore, the economic development of the North of Italy was facilitated by its links to the South, a truth that the Lega Nord does not acknowledge in its political rhetoric.
Thus, when asking whether the results alone of these referendums will determine a stronger north-south division within Italy it is evident the answer is no. This is because these referendums, although symbolic, hold no true political weight as it is up to Rome to make the final decision. Moreover, greater regional autonomy would not translate to an absolute secession from the nation-state as political and economic collaboration with the South would still be required to certain extents. However, it is the long-standing, racist, and inaccurate rhetoric behind Lega Nord’s reasoning for the referendums that is deepening the divide. This same rhetoric is what leads to an underestimation of the economic potential of the South in terms of agriculture and tourism alone. An underestimation that is based on a population’s ignorance of their territory’s potential, an ignorance which is then exploited by regionalist parties like the Lega Nord. The issue has always been the same – economic disparity between the North and South of Italy. Thus, the solution would be to reign in the South’s economic potential and make use of it, stripping the Lega Nord of its imperative discourse of how the North’s successful economies should not be used to fund poorer areas in the south of Italy.
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