Italy’s North-South Divide Worsening

Southern cities are falling behind in terms of economic development and governance.

The Palermo Cathedral, Italy, December 9, 2011
The Palermo Cathedral, Italy, December 9, 2011 (Dino Quinzani)

Italy’s north-south divide appears to be worsening with southern cities falling further behind their northern counterparts in terms of economic development and governance.

A quality of life index published yearly by the Il Sole 24 Ore business newspaper shows large northern cities such as Bologna, Milan and Rome pulling ahead of great southern cities such as Naples and Palermo.

Earlier this year, a study by Svimez, an association for the development of the south, also revealed that deindustrialization and unemployment had hit the region particularly hard. Just four in ten working-age southern Italians are in work, the think tank said, while birth rates are the lowest in over a century. Tens of thousands of southerns also left the region to seek work elsewhere in the last year.

Svimez predicted further “demographic upheaval” in years to come and warned against a “tsunami of unforeseeable consequences” if the government wasn’t able to halt southern Italy’s decline.

It is doubtful if it can. The national government in Rome has subsidized economic development in the south for decades but to little avail. Indeed, by propping up industries in the south artificially, it might have inadvertently forestalled the emergence of more competitive businesses that could have attracted local talent.

The south’s backwardness stretches back more than a century.

Before unification in 1861, Italy consisted of various republics and principalities that often owed their independence to their relations with other European powers. The south had already been unified half a century earlier, however, in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and resisted national unification on northern terms. The imposition of northern dialect and northern laws proved unpopular and the new central government in Rome made only a halfhearted effort to turn the two parts of the country into a single cultural and political unit.

Today, the provinces north of Rome are home to the nation’s industrial base whereas the south’s economy remains largely agricultural. Corruption and organized crime are impediments to growth across the country but especially pervasive in the rural south. A considerable amount of economic activity is confined to the informal sector there although estimates vary.

Southern Italian provinces, including Sardinia and Sicily, are classified under the European Union’s convergence objectives because gross domestic product per capita there is less than 70 percent of the European average and industrial development is lacking. The region has 35 percent of Italy’s population but accounts for less than a quarter of its economy. In the central and northern provinces, by contrast, incomes are on average almost twice as high and well above the European average.

Some northerners detest the permanent subsidizing of the south and support the Lega Nord party which advocates northern secession. There are movements for autonomy in the south as well but they are far less popular.