Tensions are rising amongst floating voters, ahead of this autumn’s referendum.
‘La Serenissima’ is less than serene these days. Twenty million tourists visit Venice each year, brought in by cruise ships which dredge up the fragile lagoon. Citizens’ groups protest that the regional authorities prioritise profit over preservation, as homes become hotels and salumerias make way for souvenirs. Meanwhile, Venetians argue amongst themselves about the future of their sinking city. On October 22nd 2017, 151 years after Veneto and Mantua voted to secede to the Kingdom of Italy, Venetians will vote in a controversial referendum for increased autonomy from Rome. Why have relations between Venice and the Eternal City turned sour, and what could result from yet another referendum in Europe?
As the Northern League President of Veneto Luca Zaia likes to emphasise, Venice has a long history of independence from Rome. Veneto was the last region to join Italy, in 1866, and for more than a millennium previously the prosperous sovereign republic of Venice was ruled over by the locally elected Doge. Indeed, the Doge was elected using small balls, or ‘ballotte’, from which the word ‘ballot’ derives. Venetian nationalism arose in the 1980s and has been growing since. In 2014, the region of Veneto held a digital referendum on greater autonomy from the Italian capital. In the online event known as Plebiscito.eu, 89% of the population voted in favour of secession. Yet the results were deemed invalid. Three years on, Luca Zaia planned to ask Venetians if they wanted complete independence from Italy or to control the region’s tax revenue, but Italy’s Constitutional Court blocked his suggestion. The upcoming referendum is a vote for greater autonomy rather than full independence, but still represents a high-water mark for the nationalist cause.
This long history of independence created a distinct Venetian culture, which is the foundation of the Northern League’s brand of nationalism. As a prosperous port Venice was exposed to diverse influences and tongues. The Venetian language, spoken by 65% of the local population, is largely incomprehensible to other Italians. In some ways, it is closer to French and Spanish than Italian. For example, a cornetto in Florence is the same as a brioche in Venice (or a croissant anywhere else). The distinct Venetian language is key to their stronger claim for secession. Under European rules, German and Ladin minority groups in Trento or South Tyrol have a protected status as a national minority. Venetians use their linguistic identity to claim the same protection. Yet, Venetian nationalism is also based on financial grievance. The independence movement has gained momentum as the Italian economy has stalled because, as Catalonia is to Spain, Veneto is a net contributor to Italy’s struggling economy. Tourists may pour into Venice, but few locals feel the financial benefit. Faced with a sinking city and the perception of a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy in Rome, Venetians have developed a familiar sentiment: take back control.
Although the referendum is non-binding, it could still have a big impact. Initially, Venetian nationalists wanted a referendum for full independence, but this was deemed unconstitutional under Italian law. Unlike in Catalonia, the nationalists gave way and a legal referendum for smaller changes was instead agreed. The result is likely to strongly favour greater autonomy for Veneto and, on the same day, the region of Lombardy will hold a similar vote over devolved powers. Other regions, such as Sicily and Sardinia, already function with similar local control, but in a fragile political landscape, the timing of the results will give strength to the secessionist Northern League ahead of next year’s national elections. With the Democratic Party government already under pressure to kickstart a stagnant economy, the tension over Venice’s troubled waters only adds to a rising tide of discontent.