Alberto Mingardi  

Is Venice going to secede?

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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.


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CATEGORIES: Eurozone crisis



COMMENTS (5 to date)
Shane L writes:

Very interesting situation unfolding. Two comments:

"If something is going to happen in Veneto, it won't be an uprise of micro-nationalism: but rather, a tax revolt."

However surely it is also a nationalist movement. Venetians must feel a weak identification with Rome and the rest of Italy, while Venice has its own glorious history, and language, to look back towards.

The continuing strength of old-fashioned ethnic nationalism in many places worries me a bit, in the context of mass-migration of ethnic groups from country to country.

"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."

I think that's important and something that is misunderstood in international discussions about the European Union. Here in Ireland I'm sure the debate about membership has always been about the pros and cons for Ireland, never about merging with any wider European identity. EU member states are self-interested. International commentators debating "Europe" sometimes seem to expect EU citizens to identify with a European nation state, and are surprised with member states pull in different directions. This is weird because citizens only tolerate the EU because they feel it has some benefits for their own nation.

Mark Bahner writes:

Hi,

What percentage of the flood gates that protect Venice were funded by the city?

Mark

Filippo83 writes:

Dear Mark,
we can say all and nothing. Taxes, in Italy, are collected locally, then sent to Rome (or, let's say, to central bureaucracy), and then finally re-distributed on the territory. Region Veneto, which "capital" is Venice, actually gives about 70bln€ per year, and receives back roughly 50bln€ per year (regional GDP is 130-140bln€). In these 50bln€, everything is counted: local administrations costs, welfare state, police, bureaucracy, roads, military (in this region), and flood gates (MOSE) as well.

Giancarlo writes:

I live in Veneto and I agree with the main topics of your post. I feel myself as strong European and I believe that a federation of regions would be the best institutional frame for a modern democracy and the main road to reach an effective public action. But now the political debate in Italy is going toward the opposite direction, charging all Regions and local communities, not yet the Central State or just some Regions, to be guilty of huge waste of public money. So why to be surprise for independent movement reaction in Veneto? Furthermore, a research presented a couple of days ago by the “Guardia di Finanza” shows that Veneto and the other northern regions keep an high fiscal compliance: how call this if not “taxation without representation”?

giovanni dalla-valle writes:

[Comment removed for EconLog policy violations.--Econlib Ed.]

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