The Scottish independence referendum on 18 September was followed closely by independence movements in other countries across Europe. Lorenzo Piccoli writes on the impact of the referendum result on regionalist parties in Italy, particularly those in the regions of South Tyrol, Veneto and Sardinia. He argues that the different legal context in Italy, combined with the real policy differences between Italian regionalist parties and the SNP, will make it problematic for Scotland to act as a model for such movements in their push for independence.
Over the past 12 months unofficial referendums have produced significant support for independence movements in the Italian regions of South Tyrol and Veneto. However, the polls in these regions were marred by an utter lack of professional organisation. The fact that 10 per cent of the votes for the independence of Veneto came from Santiago in Chile left many observers rather perplexed.
Meanwhile, in Sardinia a group of activists recently came up with a proposal to ask Rome to sell their island to the Swiss creating a 27th canton or, as the proposal goes, the Canton Marittimo. Unsurprisingly, while the idea achieved remarkable media attention, the Italian government does not seem to be too bothered about it.
It would be easy to dismiss these initiatives as frivolous; but there is certainly a serious component to it. In Veneto, for instance, according to official opinion polls, 55 per cent of all eligible voters back independence. In South Tyrol, while it is commonly understood that the majority party Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) aims to increase the degree of devolved self-government within the existing framework of the Italian Republic, the official statute of the Party states that the ultimate objective remains secession from the rest of the country and annexation to Austria. In Sardinia, a motion tabled at the regional assembly calling for an official referendum on independence in 2012 failed by only one vote.
As has recently ben pointed out in a previous EUROPP article, something has changed in the demands of these parties in the last couple of years. No longer content with trying to seek nation-wide reform or greater autonomy, many of them now favour outright secession from the Republic of Italy. Scotland’s two year-long referendum process, which led to a binding result on the independence of the country, proved that a referendum is a feasible option: Italian regionalist parties now have growing confidence in holding a plebiscite on their own permanence within the Italian state.
Is Scotland really a model for Italian regions?
While the vote in Scotland set a precedent, perhaps its consequences on other regions in Europe and, more specifically, in Italy, should not be overestimated. Crucial differences remain between the case of Scotland and those of Veneto, South Tyrol, and Sardinia, both legally and politically. These differences make it hard to imagine that similar referendums on independence can be held in Italy any time soon.
The most important obstacles probably lie in the legal differences between Italy and the UK. Italian regionalist parties might find it hard to emulate the Scottish example due to constitutional restraints. It is important to bear in mind how the referendum on the independence of Scotland came about.In the run up to the 2011 Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National Party (SNP) committed to holding a referendum in its election manifesto. The SNP gained an overall majority in the election, winning 69 from 129 seats, thereby gaining a popular mandate to hold the referendum.
In January 2012, the UK government offered to legislate to provide the Scottish Parliament with the powers to hold a referendum and in October 2012 the UK government and the Scottish government negotiated the Edinburgh Agreement – the legal basis for holding a referendum on the independence of Scotland. This procedure has certainly been facilitated by the fact that the UK adopts a system of legal precedent and does not have a codified constitution. In other contexts where a codified constitution exists, difficult problems have arisen. In Spain, for instance, the constitution establishes the sovereignty of the Spanish people and the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, making it legally complicated, if not impossible, to hold a referendum on secession. Similar sets of problems are very likely to arise in Italy.
Beyond legal complications, there are two political reasons why it is problematic to think that the process in Scotland can represent a model for Italian regionalist parties. First, while the SNP received its mandate to hold a referendum after winning an overall majority in the election, none of the regionalist parties in Italy are in a similar position. Only the SVP in South Tyrol is close to an absolute majority: having obtained more than 50 per cent of the votes for several decades, the party reached 48 per cent of the regional votes in 2013. The overtly secessionist parties such as the Süd-Tiroler Freiheit and Die Freiheitlichen reached almost 25 per cent of the votes.
The regionalist parties in Veneto and Sardinia are nowhere near the threshold of 50 per cent. In the 2010 elections in Veneto, Lega Nord obtained 35.2 per cent – and the two other parties campaigning for independence, Venetian–Independence and the Venetian National Party, reached 0.65 per cent combined. Regionalist parties in Sardinia are fragmented and together combined for around 25 per cent of the votes in the last elections held in 2013. Without a solid majority in the region, it remains hard to see how a referendum on independence can be invoked.
The other reason why it is complicated to think of Scotland as an example for Italian regionalist parties is that there are very profound differences between such parties and their Scottish equivalent, the SNP. In the last two decades, this party has managed to transform itself into a civic, welcoming, pro-European, pro-immigration party. In South Tyrol, the SVP has somewhat stricter stances on immigration and its appeal remains primarily linked to the German-speaking population of the region, thus retaining a strongly ethnic connotation. The other secessionist parties, the Süd-Tiroler Freiheit and Die Freiheitlichen, are borderline racist and Eurosceptic.
In Sardinia there are many highly fragmented parties, with no common ideological bond. And in Veneto the Lega Nord is Eurosceptic and overtly Islamophobic. These differences matter. Until a few years ago it was possible for Lega Nord to toast the SNP’s and Salmond’s success, with their newspaper La Padania calling it a victory in the ‘spirit of the Scottish national hero William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace’; but this is not the kind of victim rhetoric you hear in Scotland. The SNP’s broadly progressive position constituted a firm starting point for a process of self-determination that was not about ethnic identity or freedom from oppression. As a matter of fact, to the surprise of many, Lega Nord has been relatively silent on the referendum in Scotland. As a result of the profound qualitative policy differences with the SNP, many regionalist parties in Italy may find it hard to draw inspiration from foreign shores.
For all these reasons, it remains unlikely that the vote in Scotland will represent a critical juncture for Italian regionalist parties. While the Scottish referendum process has captured the attention of stateless nations everywhere in Europe, obstacles remain for this model to be emulated by others. Ultimately, the Scottish referendum model was based on one necessary condition: the Scots. This is a component that Italian regionalist parties will find very hard to import.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Lorenzo Piccoli – European University Institute
Lorenzo Piccoli is a researcher at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. He works on self-government and citizenship policies. He collaborates with the Italian NGO Unimondo.