The citizens of the Italian region of Veneto voted overwhelmingly for independence from Italy in a non-binding referendum which will nevertheless send shock waves throughout Europe.
The referendum, organized by the pro-independence organization "Il Veneto Decida" but not recognized by Rome, was held online between March 16 and 21. The organizers claim that 2.36 million votes were cast out of 3.7 million registered voters, with 2.1 million votes in favor of independence. That is equivalent to 89% of the votes and 57% of eligible voters, in either case a clear majority. Additional referendum items included remaining in the EU (55% in favour), retaining the Euro (51% in favour) and remaining in NATO (65% in favour).
The governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia, has said that this referendum will have immediate consequences, though he stopped short of calling for unilateral independence. Instead, a second formal referendum will likely be organized in the near future, though Mr. Zaia admits that Rome is likely to declare any future referendum illegal. Meanwhile, Mr. Zaia implies that the wealthy region may stop forwarding taxes to the central Treasury, where “it is used to prop up insolvent towns throughout Italy.”
The capital of Veneto is Venice and Venice was the capital and chief city of the great maritime trading empire of the Republic of Venice. Founded in 697 A.D. by locals seeking protection from the ravages of the collapsing Roman Empire, the “Most Serene” Republic slowly grew and expanded through war and trade, disputing and then dominating the lucrative Levantine trade through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The fortunes of the city began to decline with the rise in wealth and power of the Atlantic States, particularly France and Spain. Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the neutral republic in 1797 and formally ended the independence of the Republic after 1,100 years.
An independent Venice would have a population of almost 5 million and a GDP per capita of €30,500, which represents 8% of the population and 9.5% of gross domestic product of Italy. The new state would have about the same population and economy as the Republic of Ireland. Venice also boasts a diversified, export-oriented economy that has been growing at a faster rate than the rest of Italy. The secession of the third wealthiest region in Italy would undoubtedly have a strongly negative impact on the outlook of Italian debt, even with a debt-sharing agreement between Venice and Rome, though there has been no movement in the 10-year bond rate.
It would also give wings to the Northern League, a pro-independence and anti-Euro party that seeks to break off northern Italy into the Republic of Padania.
The shock waves of the referendum ripple far beyond Italy, however. Russian media has followed the voting closely and have been quick to point out that the level of support for Venetian independence is not very different than that for Crimean independence. That may be true, but there wasn’t a Russian Motor Rifle division deployed in Venice last week.
Pro-independence groups in Scotland and Catalonia are also watching the situation in Italy closely. Both regions are planning for their own independence referendums this year: in September for Scotland and in November for Catalonia. The Venetian vote will provide moral support for the separatists, while the reactions of Rome and Brussels could set a precedent for similar future cases.
Particularly in the case of Catalonia, referendum supporters will be quick to point out that at least Venice and Scotland citizens have been able to have their voices heard. The government in Madrid has categorically refused to contemplate any sort of referendum or plebiscite on any question related to independence. This narrow-minded, legalistic approach pleases the most conservative elements of the ruling Partido Popular, who are against any further concessions to the Catalan government, and Mr. Rajoy is facing serious unrest within his own party due to allegations of widespread corruption and illegal campaign financing.
These hardline tactics might please Spanish nationalists, but they are predicated on the belief that “Catalan independence” is the work of a small clique of self-serving populist politicians, rather than a broad-based movement. This is an extraordinarily dangerous belief, and polling data indicates that it is totally misguided. A recent survey conducted by a Catalan polling agency this March indicates that support for Catalan independence stands at 60%, up from 55% in a November 2013 poll. So if Mr. Rajoy is wrong and Catalan separatism really is a mass movement, then no policy could be more conducive to the growth of separatism than the one he has adopted. Mr. Rajoy’s government is the best friend the independence movement ever had.
Crimea and Venice are similar movements representing diametrically opposed challenges. Crimea independence from Ukraine represents the re-emergence of a powerful unitary Russian state. Venice, Scotland and Catalonia represent the disintegration of centralist states made possible by the economic and security arrangements of the European Union and NATO. Europe must find a way to balance the legitimate democratic aspirations of all its citizens, while preventing the spread of intolerant nationalisms and fragmentation into an unmanageable number of micro-states. What Europe needs is a re-engagement of her citizens in the integration project: Europe needs to start making Europeans again.
Until it does, Europe will remain a minor, regional actor on the world stage.