On the sixth of October a mass rally was held in Venice, during which a declaration of independence was delivered to the Veneto regional government. The event generated plenty of publicity for the Indipendeza Veneta party which was only founded in May this year, and highlighted their efforts to convince the government to allow a referendum on Venetian independence.
Earlier in the year, the party secured 20,000 signatures for a petition in favour of a referendum, which was presented to the Veneto region’s governor, Luca Zaia. Polls in Corriere della Serra and Il Gazzetino indicate that roughly three in four Venetians favour independence from Italy. Indipendeza Veneta has proposed the formation of an independent nation which would be called ‘Repubblica Veneta’ and would comprise the entirety of Veneto and surrounding areas which currently form parts of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Trentino and Lombardy regions. The population of this new state would be approximately five million people; a similar population to that of Denmark or Finland.
While this issue has suddenly risen in prominence, there is a substantial historical background to it, and its rapid rise in significance is indicative of a wider trend in both Italy and Europe.
Venetian secessionists have a strong historical argument to draw upon to bolster their calls for the independence of Venice. The Venetian Republic was founded in 697 and only ceased to exist after it was invaded by Napoleon’s armies in 1797. Furthermore, it wasn’t until 1866 that Venice became part of Italy. The strength of the Venetian independence movement is easier to understand when it is considered that Venice has experienced over a thousand years of independence compared to less than 150 years as a component part of a united Italy. The roots of the modern Venetian independence movement were established in the 1970s and have grown ever since. Such secessionism has been resisted by the government in Rome however, which in 2000 blocked a previous referendum on devolution which would have amounted almost to independence for Veneto. The Venetian case is also symptomatic of a wider wave of regional independence movements which are asserting themselves across Italy.
In April, thousands marched in the predominantly ethnic German South Tyrol region in northern Italy to demand independence. South Tyrol had previously formed a part of Austria before it was annexed by Italy in 1919. Also, last year a small town to the east of Rome declared itself an independent principality. Filettino’s mayor, Luca Sellari, made the declaration after the government threatened to merge Filettino with the neighbouring town of Trevi. Filettino now has its own currency, the Fiorito, and on 12 May 2012 a constitution for the principality has been ratified. While Filettino’s gesture has been largely symbolic, the international attention garnered by the principality’s declaration has no doubt been a source of embarrassment for the Italian government. The lack of action being taken by Rome on the issue may also encourage the activities of groups who actually represent a threat to Italy’s territorial integrity.
A more tangible threat to Italian unity has been Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord, which first made itself known by taking 9% of the popular vote in Italy’s 1992 general election. Since its emergence Lega Norda has campaigned for an increasingly federalised Italy, which would include a Republic of Padania in the northern half of the peninsula. Padania would consist of almost all of Italy north of Rome, significantly including all of the country’s wealthiest regions. This fact illustrates the true danger which parties like Indipendeza Veneta pose for the central government. If wealthy regions such as Veneto secede from Italy, how will the state be able to generate the tax revenues required to support subsidy-reliant regions such as Sicily?
The growth in regional nationalist groups seeking independence is not an exclusively Italian phenomenon either. This trend has been mirrored in other European countries. Only this month the British government made a commitment to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. The New Flemish Alliance has polled well in recent Belgian elections, and Catalans have become more assertive in their efforts to gain more autonomy from the Madrid government. Basque nationalism, which has long been influential, continues to grow as well.
This poses a significant challenge for the European Union as there is no precedent for dealing with a situation where a new country secedes from a member state. For example, would the Repubblica Veneta be entitled to automatic EU membership, or would it have to reapply? In the case of reapplication, a significant problem arises. Any existing member state would be able to veto the accession of this new entrant. This means that Italy could choose to block EU membership for an independent Venetian state.
A common factor which is also discernible among these movements is the fact that they are occurring in the wealthier regions of their respective countries, or in Scotland’s case, one which contains key energy resources. The independence of these regions could have potentially severe financial implications for what would remain of Italy, Britain, Spain or Belgium afterwards. Italy and Spain in particular would have difficulty coping with their debts after losing their most prosperous regions.
As the Berliner Zeitung has argued: “In a precarious situation in the heart of the euro crisis, these new regionalist movements represent the danger of renewed political instability.” With the rise of parties like Indipendeza Veneta, rather than seeing a splintering of the EU as so many have predicted, Europe could instead be faced by the splintering of its member states; which will have consequences that are difficult to predict.