Can Europe Make It?

There is always someone more northern than us

Southern Italians who have emigrated to northern Italy for economic reasons have often faced discrimination from their wealthier compatriots. But now northern Italians are emigrating to Switzerland for economic reasons - and are suffering similar discrimination themselves. Read more from our You Tell Us bloggers.

Jacopo Barbati
5 March 2014

The idea that 'northern is better' is typical of contemporary Italian society, and in the last twenty five years it has been promoted politically by a well-known party called Lega Nord (the Northern league).

It is undeniably true that northern Italy is more developed than southern Italy. In 2011, the average GDP per capita was €31,000 in the north and €17,000 in the south. By 'the north', we mean the regions of Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-South Tyrol and Emilia-Romagna. 'The south' is generally used to refer to the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia. So far, so uncontroversial, but the idea that Lega Nord tried to pull into the Italian political debate is that the problem of southern Italy is its people. 'Secession!' was its motto in the 1990s, during the peak of its popularity.

Of course it's very simplistic and slightly offensive to suggest that the problem of southern Italy is southern Italians. The north's wealth was built in the 1960s, in large part thanks to the hard work of millions of people coming from the south who were forced to leave their homeland.

Italy’s south was (and maybe still is) plagued by difficulties that were exacerbated by the questionable process that led to the unification of Italy in the 1860s and that favoured, among other things, organized criminality (Mafia, Camorra, etc).

Regardless, discrimination from northern Italians toward southern Italians has always been present and is well represented by a word used by the former to depict the latter: “terrone” (pl. “terroni”), a denigrating term coming from “terra” (soil), referring to the fact that being a peasant was the most common job in the south during the period of mass migration northwards.

The symbol of this process is the city of Milan: Lombardy’s capital, Italy’s financial and industrial center, and primary destination of 60s internal immigrants, who contributed to make it the biggest urban area in Italy, with more than 5 million inhabitants.

And it is in Lombardy that Lega Nord, and its ideas, have made their bastion.

Lega Nord’s battle for the independence of northern Italy takes several forms. These include the criminalization of immigration (and of immigrants), the quest for “monetary sovereignty” (their campaign for the next EP election is mainly focused against our common currency), and support for the “freedom” and “self-determination” of the northern Italian people. This can basically be summarized in one word: ultra-nationalism.

But they are not the only ones. There are many nationalist parties in Europe, but only a couple are specifically against workers from "the south": the Swiss Unione Democratica (sic!) di Centro (UDC, also known as the 'Swiss People’s Party') and Lega (sic!) dei Ticinesi (Ticino League).

These two parties promote discriminatory campaigns against foreign and cross-border workers in Switzerland. And guess who they are? Italians. Coming from Lombardy. It is likely that many of them are Lega Nord’s voters, and it is likely that many of them used to discriminate against southern Italians. Now they are “southern”, while working in Switzerland.

One of the campaigns was 'Ronfa i gatt, bala i ratt', meaning 'Cats sleep, rats dance'. Cats are major political parties; rats, of course, are foreigners: two rats out of the three present on the posters are dressed with the Italian flag, the other one with the European flag.

Another one was 'Siamo in mutande', literally meaning 'We’re in underwear' and signifying that 'we' (the Swiss people) have nothing left, insinuating that everything has been taken by foreigners. Posters clearly explain, among other things, that 'Schengen agreements allow free circulation of criminals'. Enough said.

This is the background that led Swiss people to vote on the referendum, promoted by UDC and held on February 9, concerning migration control. The results showed a (slight) majority of Swiss citizens in favour of controlling migration and discouraging foreign workers. This outcome will force the Government to amend laws accordingly and to review many of the Swiss agreements with the EU. This situation led to the decision, by the European Commission, to review Swiss partnerships to the “Horizon 2020” and “Erasmus+” programs, excluding the eligibility of Swiss students and researchers starting from next academic year.

The major protests against this decision were organized by Mario Borghezio, one of Lega Nord's more bellicose representatives, known for his eccentric and sometimes violent acts against foreigners. Borghezio shouted, during a session at the European Parliament about Swiss-EU relations, 'the EU dictatorship must stop', 'Free Swiss', and 'Respect for the people’s will'.

But 'the people’s will', in this case, was to discriminate against people from Lombardy, the very ones who voted him in to defend them from southern Italians, while being the south of Switzerland themselves. Such is the paradox of ultra-nationalism. 

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