ROME (Reuters) - Italy is about to mark the 150th anniversary of its unification but in a country where local identity often trumps any sense of nationhood, there are more party poopers than candles on the birthday cake.
With its prime minister mired in sex and corruption scandals and its image abroad at a low point, even the government’s decision to declare March 17 a public holiday did not manage to inject a sorely needed dose of sense of pride and unity.
“Given the real problems of the country, this is pretty petty stuff. But this tug of war about March 17 is a symptom of widespread confusion,” said Giovanni Belardelli, a commentator for the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Indeed, Italy’s 150th birthday party has shone a magnifying glass more on what divides the country than what unites it.
Two cabinet ministers from the Northern League, a pro-devolution party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition government, voted against making the day a holiday and a third did not attend the meeting.
This sparked fresh accusations, including from a former Italian president, that their long-term aim is not federalism but secession by the prosperous north.
The confusion was such that the education minister vowed that schools would be open but was overruled. Business leaders said the last thing the economy needed was another non-working day so a holiday later in the year was scrapped in exchange.
“This anniversary is very artificial. The people have no feeling for it because it does not relate at all to the reality of the country,” said Manlio Graziano, author of the 2010 book “The Failure of Italian Nationhood”.
“We are celebrating unity at a time when the government is weak and discredited and divided ... it seems that the ruling class want it more than the people,” Graziano, who teaches at Paris’ Sorbonne university, told Reuters.
Italy was only united as a single political entity in 1861 after the overthrow of the Kingdom of Naples by a nationalist movement led by the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi and backed by the rival Kingdom of Piedmont.
But strong regional identities remain firmly entrenched throughout the country with a particularly marked division between northern Italy and the poorer southern half.
Last week in the northern Veneto region youths burned an effigy of Garibaldi, who was known as the “Hero of Two Worlds” because he also took part in a South American revolution. Around his neck was a sign reading “the hero of trash”.
One hundred and fifty years of putative unity is a drop in the bucket of time for a peninsula that has seen the rise and fall of empires, wars between city-states, invasions, domination by the papacy and two world wars that shifted northern borders.
During the debate, Luis Burnwalder, president of the bi-lingual Alto Adige region which Austria ceded to Italy after World War One, said his region had “nothing to celebrate”.
This sparked protests from area hoteliers, who feared a boycott by “Italian tourists”. Even though the Alto Adige has been part of Italy for nearly 100 years, Italian is one of its two official languages and its residents have Italian passports.
The biggest party pooper by far has been the Northern League, whose battle cry is “Roma Ladrona” (Rome the big thief) because, its political apostles preach, the capital takes taxes from the hard-working civic north and waste it on the slothful south.
Critics say the League is racist and xenophobic and harbours dreams of an independent “Padania” (a name derived from the Latin word for the river Po) made up of eight regions.
League militants call southerners “Terroni”, an inflammatory derogative roughly meaning “ignorant peasant” which Italy’s highest court ruled in 2005 was offensive.
The north-south divide, which was to have disappeared when Garibaldi landed in Sicily to start his northward march, still hangs around the country’s neck.
In a recent poll for the La Repubblica newspaper, 77 percent of Northern Italians believed that they were more respectful of laws and 50 percent of them believed that they have a stronger worth ethic than southerners. Southerners strongly disagreed.
It also said that Italian post-war comic actor Alberto Sordi, who died in 2003, did more to give Italians a sense of national unity than Berlusconi.
In 1861, statesman Massimo d’Azeglio uttered the famous phrase: “We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians”. One hundred and fifty years on, that is still a work in progress. (Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)