Italian regions go to the polls in Europe’s latest referendums on autonomy

Non-binding votes in Lombardy and Veneto could send strong message to Rome

Two of Italy’s richest regions are holding referendums on greater autonomy on Sunday, in the latest push by European regions to wrest more power from the centre.

Lombardy and Veneto, between them home to a quarter of Italy's population, are seeking semi-autonomy, giving them more control over their finances and administration.

Although legally non-binding, the exercise is the latest ripple in a wave of votes on greater autonomy across Europe in recent years, from Scotland in 2014 to Brexit last year and Catalonia in September.

Although both regions have in the past campaigned for complete independence from Rome, their leaders have made it clear the ballots are about autonomy and not secession.


Some insight into the dynamics can be gleaned from the example of Sappada, a mountainous town in Veneto that straddles the regional border with Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

A skiing and hiking paradise, the town is on the verge of becoming the first in Italy to switch regions to become part of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, one of Italy's five semi-autonomous regions. The plan was approved by the Italian government in September after a lengthy bureaucratic process.

"The reasons for people wanting to be part of Friuli are varied: we have our own dialect, which originates from German, and culturally we feel closer to Friuli," said Manuel Piller Hoffer, the mayor of Sappada.

“But the main one is economic: living next door to a semi-autonomous region, people see advantages that they don’t have. They see finances being controlled better, a better health service and sustainable investments being made – they see a better standard of living.”

It is this kind of freedom that Veneto and Lombardy crave. The regions, both led by governors from the far-right Northern League – a party that in the past has campaigned on a platform of independence – are also using the votes to send a message to Rome, hoping that evidence of strong support among the population for special powers will strengthen their hand in negotiations with the government.


Technically the plebiscites, which are costing more than €55 million to host, are unnecessary. The Italian constitution allows each region (there are 20 altogether) to seek to widen their powers via dialogue with the central government, without the need of a public vote. Emilia-Romagna, a northern region led by a centre-left Democratic party administration, triggered such a process on Wednesday.

"Regions mainly need to prove that their accounts are in order. If there are deficits in the regional budget then this is an obstacle to recognising greater powers," said Gian Candido De Martin, a law professor at Rome's Luiss University. "This is the route Emilia-Romagna has chosen to take, not a referendum."

However, Luca Zaia, the president of Veneto, and Roberto Maroni, his counterpart in Lombardy, claim that attempts at dialogue with Rome have been ignored and a referendum is the only viable route.

Their main incentive for achieving greater autonomy is money: Zaia and Maroni claim their regions each send more than €50 billion more of their taxes each year to Rome than they get in return.

Both regions want more control over immigration as well as their education systems and industries. Lombardy, with the business hub of Milan as its capital, and Veneto, the producer of one of Italy’s most precious exports, prosecco, respectively generate about 20 per cent and 10 per cent of the country’s total GDP.

The calls for greater autonomy are expected to pass the test by a wide margin, despite strong opposition from business leaders including Luciano Benetton, co-founder of the Veneto-based clothing chain.

The public votes are backed by the insurgent Five Star Movement, while the ruling Democratic Party has urged its supporters to abstain. Alessandro Alfieri, a Democratic regional councillor for Lombardy, said this was mainly because the party saw the referendums as a waste of money.

“We all agree with having more control over things like scientific research, education and innovation, but do not agree with throwing away over €55 million,” he said. “The referendum is a huge expense and not very useful, especially if you can do the same as Emilia-Romagna.”

Alfieri said another motive for Maroni and Zaia was to try to bolster support for the Northern League before elections. As the party's leader, Matteo Salvini, strives to attract more voters in Italy's south, there are fears about losing voters in the north.

“While Salvini tries to talk to the whole of Italy, they are losing support in some parts of the north, so this kind of referendum is being used to try to retain support, especially with talk of keeping more money within the territories,” said Alfieri.

Marco Gasparinetti, from Venice, the capital of Veneto, said there was little support among Venetians for the Northern League but most people would vote yes in the referendum as they cherished getting decisions made closer to home.

Like Sappada, they look towards their semi-autonomous neighbours of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige with envy. "Especially with our history, being surrounded by regions with special powers is uncomfortable for us," he said.

Guardian service