U.S. Markets

Italian regions start pursuing greater autonomy in shadow of Catalonia crisis

MILAN/VENICE (Reuters) - Political leaders in northern Italy claimed an overwhelming mandate on Monday to seek greater autonomy from Rome after referendums that did not go as far as the independence vote in Catalonia declared illegal by Spain.

Slideshow ( 12 images )

Voters in Lombardy and Veneto, both run by the once openly secessionist Northern League, backed the party’s autonomy bid by more than 95 percent, although in Lombardy less than half of the electorate turned out.

In both regions, many people complain their taxes are wasted by the central government, accusing Rome of delivering low-quality public services and diverting money to the poor south widely seen by northerners as corrupt.

“This is the big bang of institutional reforms,” Veneto Governor Luca Zaia told a news conference, announcing plans to begin negotiations on clawing back powers from the central government in 23 policy areas.

Regional representatives would be ready to start discussions with Rome in a week, he said.

Unlike the Catalonian referendum, which sparked a political crisis in Spain, the Italian votes were legal, but not binding on Rome. Foreign Affairs Minister Angelino Alfano said the government was ready to negotiate as long as the unity of the nation was not called into question.

Italy’s constitution does not allow regional fiscal autonomy, however, and Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina said that while Rome was open to talks it would not give up tax proceeds from the rich regions.

Related Coverage

Lombardy, the region of financial hub Milan, accounts for about 20 percent of Italy’s economy, which is the euro zone’s third largest. Veneto, which includes the tourist magnet Venice, accounts for 10 percent. So any redistribution of tax revenues could have a negative impact on much poorer regions in the south.

Lombardy Governor Roberto Maroni said tax was very much on the table.

“We can now write a new page: the regions that ask for more power will get it,” he told journalists.

“I am talking for example about the power to discuss about tax proceeds that normally go to Rome ... this is the first step in a path towards big reforms.”

Voter turnout was around 38 percent in Lombardy and just above 57 percent in Veneto.

“The vote is a success for the Lega, Zaia and Maroni. It is an important victory but a dangerous one too,” said Giovanni Orsina, history professor at Rome’s Luiss University.

The referendums could deepen north-south divisions that pre-date the modern, unified Italian state and many also backfire on the League, a centre-right party that is trying to broaden its appeal beyond the north ahead of national elections next year, Orsina said.

Additional reporting by Giulia Segreti in Milan; Editing by Robin Pomeroy