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The Request for More Autonomy in Times of Representation Crises

The Request for More Autonomy in Times of Representation Crises
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

Three weeks following the vote in Catalonia, the Lombards and the Venetians called for a referendum on their region’s autonomy. Certain hasty commentators have proceeded to amalgamate these events and see them as the proof that the European Union’s cohesion is threatened by a heavy process of disintegration of Member States. Reality, as usual, is way more complex. If considerable differences between the different peninsulas exist, these votes also attest of substantial political evolutions that have been affecting a number of European countries.

"Catalonia’s History is specific. It has strong linguistic and cultural identities [...] On the contrary, Padania was invented by Umberto Bossi and his Lega Nord friends."

Evidently the Catalan, the Lombardian and the Venetian referendums are hardly comparable. The first one is unconstitutional and the Catalans who promoted it have long been fighting to obtain their independence. The two others are organized by leaders of Lega Nord in the aim of obtaining greater autonomy on the basis of article 116, paragraph 3 of the Italian Constitution. Moreover, in Lombardy, the question submitted to the voters explicitly referred to the respect of national unity. Emilia-Romagna has already activated the provisions of this article without having proceeded to a vote. In spite of some nuances, the Lombards and the Venetians both decided to use a popular consultative vote, aiming to give more legitimacy to their negotiations with the central State, which they indeed obtained. In Veneto, 57.2% of the population participated and the “yes” won 98% of the votes. In Lombardy, participation was lower but remained significant (39%) with 95.3% of “yes” votes. Lega Nord leaders’ aim was to obtain more power in deciding policies for the fields of education, research, health and environment. More importantly, they hope to take over half of the fiscal benefits, meaning the difference between taxes and fees to public authorities and public money transferred by the State to the aforementioned regions.

These referendums were initiated by the leaders of the regions, Roberto Maroni in Lombardy and Luca Zaia in Veneto, who represent what could be called the “historical canal” of Lega Nord. They still aim to achieve one day what is stated within article 1 of their Party’s statutes, “Padania’s independence”. However, this objective is in a minority position among Northern Italians: according to the polls, only about 15 to 18% of are in favor of this project and even Matteo Salvini, Lega Nord’s secretary, gave up on it, preferring to build a kind of National League, based on the model of the French National Front, while attempting to set it up in the South of the country. Moreover, the modes of action are quite different. Those supporting the referendum in Lombardy and Veneto are not organizing street demonstrations, which Lega Nord used to do in the past, whereas Catalan separatists are using all sorts of modes of action, with the risk of escalation, especially since Madrid is reacting firmly. Finally, these issues are shaped by historical factors. Catalonia’s History is specific. It has strong linguistic and cultural identities, characteristics that have been thoroughly highlighted by separatists and turned into a political tool against Madrid. On the contrary, Padania was invented by Umberto Bossi and his Lega Nord friends, by using historical disparities between North and South, and by playing with certain particularities that are much more pronounced in Veneto than in Lombardy.

"These regionalisms are the reflection of a different democratic discomfort. They tap into people’s lack of trust in political leaders."

There is nothing in common between Catalonia and Italy a priori. Yet these referendums express an urge for autonomy or even for independence that can also be found in other regions like Scotland and Flanders. Most of the time – except for Scotland, which suffers from falling oil prices and a high public deficit despite being a prosperous economy – these regions are wealthy with healthy populations. These regions aspire to reduce national solidarity, in Italy, and even to reach full emancipation, like Catalonia. These regionalisms that turn into nationalisms have nothing to do with the waves that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance in France (Brittany, Basque Country, Corsica, Occitania). These were part of a peripheral movement contesting Parisian centralism, castigating Jacobinism and willing to go back to cultural and linguistic “roots”, smashed by what the movement called a “cultural genocide” supposedly led by the French Republic. Sociologists established a few thinkers of this movements as role models for a new social democratic and inventive movement.

Today, these regionalisms are the reflection of a different democratic discomfort. They tap into people’s lack of trust in political leaders and politics more generally at the national politics, the impression that Europe is far-out concept, people’s desire to find decision-making bodies closer to them. These movements are in fact very ambivalent. On the one side, they claim to be European, as their economy is open and thereby aims to take advantage of free trade. On the other side, from a political standpoint, Lega Nord is divided between the sovereigntists – like Salvini, who now seems hesitant to talk about leaving the Eurozone – and the pragmatists, who criticize Europe’s bureaucracy as well as its democratic deficit, but yet still want to remain within the EU. Regarding Catalonian separatists, they live in the illusion that Brussels would support their decision to leave the EU. In addition, many regions are being tempted by inward-looking attitudes, neglecting local and regional realities, as well as their specific characteristics.

High turnouts in referendums both in Lombardy and Veneto with the major win of the “yes”, as well as the worrying events currently taking place in Catalonia, illustrate this deep double-faced crisis, which takes place at the national and European level. Resolving this crisis has become crucial in order to avoid facing a fast and growing demand for dissociation.

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