Citizens of Venice and surrounding areas voted last week to secede from Italy, underscoring popular dissatisfaction in the richer north of the country with the lackluster pace of economic improvement.
More than two out of nearly four million residents of the region of Veneto voted in an online poll that had been organized by local independence parties. 89 percent agreed that the area should break away from the rest of Italy and reconstitute the ancient Venetian republic, a wealthy cultural and trading power that existed independently for a millennium until it was conquered by France in 1797.
While not legally binding, the outcome is likely to galvanize public support for a formal referendum bill.
“The push for independence comes from the people. It is a democratic request born of Rome’s indifference,” Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto, told the Libero newspaper.
The Indipendenza Veneta party behind the referendum bill told AFP that the separatist movement was fueled by the government’s inability to stamp out corruption, protect its citizens from a damaging recession and plug waste in the poorer south.
“We no longer want to be part of a country that has gone to the wall. Nothing works anymore,” party coordinator Nicola Gardin said.
Veneto pays some €71 billion in taxes to Rome every year, €21 billion more than it receives in investments and services.
North of Veneto, the German-speaking region of South Tyrol also resents paying more into the central government than it takes out. Secessionist parties there have called for a referendum as well.
Separatist sentiment in South Tyrol and Veneto is distinct from a wider campaign for increased autonomy for the north of Italy, which is spearheaded by the Lega Nord party, but driven by similar motives.
Regions across the north of Italy consider themselves more industrious than the south, which they see as backward. The region north of Rome hosts most of Italy’s industries whereas the south’s economy is largely agricultural. Corruption and organized crime are also more pervasive in the south. It has 35 percent of Italy’s population but accounts for just 23 percent of the nation’s economy.
Southern Italian provinces, including Sardinia and Sicily, are classified under the European Union’s convergence objectives because gross domestic product per capita there is 69 percent of the European average and industrial development is lacking. In the central and northern provinces, by contrast, incomes are much higher, ranging from 116 to 126 percent of the European average.
As many northerners see it, there are huge advantages to secession. They would rid themselves of millions of unemployed and welfare dependent southerners overnight and significantly improve their growth prospects. With northerners relatively more likely to pay their taxes and less likely to draw a government paycheck, the need for austerity and reform is far less pressing there than it is in the south.
Austerity has fueled separatist sentiment in other European regions as well, notably Catalonia, Spain’s richest province. Like the Catalans, a majority of voters in Veneto said they would like to join the European Union as an independent nation. Even more, almost 65 percent, said they wanted Veneto to remain in NATO.