Italian parties, territories show differences over Lega’s proposal for “differentiated autonomy”

Giorgia Meloni's government. Calderoli is right behind her.
Giorgia Meloni's government. Calderoli is right behind her. Author:
Italian Minister for Regional Affairs Roberto Calderoli (Lega) has unveiled a draft law that should frame access to “differentiated autonomy” for some regions in the Mediterranean country. This is a possibility that has been enshrined in the Constitution since 2001, but has so far not been put into practice. The issue is dividing government parties as well as regions themselves.

According to article 116 of the Constitution, regions with ordinary status can be granted “further forms and particular conditions of autonomy,” for which they can request the devolution of powers managed by the central state. However, Article 117 specifies that the central state has the exclusive competence to determine “the essential thresholds of benefits concerning civil and social rights that must be guaranteed throughout the national territory.” Such “essential thresholds” (or LEP, as they are known in Italian) are the new battleground of the autonomist proposal.

Calderoli’s draft foresees that the state will be authorised to devolve powers to regions even in the case that the Italian government does not determine how the LEP are to be calculated. In this case, the minister’s proposal is that “the criterion of historical expenditure sustained by state administrations in [a particular] region for the provision of public services corresponding to the devolved functions” should be applied.

Opposition parties and southern Italian regions consider such a procedure to be a botched job —as it does not specify how the LEP will be calculated but nevertheless aims to greenlight devolution— as well as a way of underfinancing the country’s most disadvantaged territories.

The changes only affect regions with ordinary statute, which are 15 of 20 into which the Italian Republic is organised. The other five enjoy a special statute: Aosta Valley, Trentino-South Tyrol, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily, and Sardinia. Although, as we shall see below, the process is also being followed with interest in those territories.

Southern marginalisation

The presidents of several southern regions, as we said, oppose Calderoli’s proposal. Among them Apulia’s Michele Emiliano, who voices economic as well as nationalist arguments. As for the former, Emiliano says the proposal, without a prior calculation of the LEP, will make inequality of southern regions as regards northern regions in the area of health care chronic. As for the latter, the Apulian leader fears that devolution of powers in education, energy, and transport could turn Italy into a “Babel in which an Italian citizen moving around the national territory could encounter different legal systems, determined by the regions instead of the national state.”

The Democratic Party, to which Emiliano belongs, is a priori in favour of greater autonomy for the regions, but lays down conditions. One is that there should be no agreements on differentiated autonomy before a common framework for the LEP has been approved. Another is that education should not be regionalised. And yet another, that region-government agreements must go through the Italian Parliament.

Opinions divided within government coalition

Nor is there agreement within the coalition government. The Lega is the party most in favour of speeding up for the right to differentiated autonomy. In fact, two of the Lega’s regional presidents have been its strongest supporters in recent years: Veneto’s Luca Zaia and Lombardy’s Attilio Fontana. Referendums on the issue were organised in 2017 in both regions.

The Lega continues to champion —at least on paper— the need to turn Italy into a federal state. However, the party is now content to support autonomist or regionalist measures. Gone are the years when the party advocated secession for the northern regions. The Lega has shifted towards autonomism and, at the same time, towards the far right. Calderoli himself, over the years, has been involved in racist and homophobic incidents. One of the most notorious was in 2013, when he said that, whenever he saw then minister Cécile Kyenge, he “thought of an orangutan.”

After a meeting with government partners Fratelli d’Italia and Forza Italia, Calderoli has shown himself willing to “listen” to the suggestions of the regional presidents and “rewrite” his proposal. Several Italian media believe Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has forced Calderoli to slow down and has imposed on him that the differentiated autonomies issue should not go ahead of one of Fratelli d’Italia’s main goals, namely to implement a semi-presidential system in the country, replacing the current parliamentary one.

In any case, Fratelli d’Italia insists that the government —the most right-leaning in the history of the Italian Republic— “is inspired by the principles of national unity and subsidiarity,” in the words of Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, and that “no measure is aimed at dividing the country, quite the contrary in true,” said EU Affairs Minister Raffaele Fitto.

Special statute regions consider asking for further devolution

As mentioned above, the five regions with special statute are following the debate closely, because of the consequences it could bear on them. “Positive, but also negative,” warned South Tyrol President Arno Kompatscher (South Tyrolean People’s Party). Kompatscher also refers to the LEP, which “must not have the effect of defining the forms of service provision and content, because this could undermine the regions’ autonomy, including those with special statute.” But Kompatscher also points out that the reform “brings an opportunity, if new powers were to be attributed to regions with ordinary statute: we could also take advantage of that and ask to obtain them.”

Aosta Valley President Erik Lavévaz (Union Valdôtaine) has also said that his government is “attentive” to events. Lavévaz argued that, together with the other regions with special status, the main interest will be to participate in the process “so that the peculiarities that each of our realities has developed over the decades are safeguarded.”

Underlying these reflections is the fear that the amendment proposed by Calderoli will ultimately be part of a strategy of the Meloni government aimed at a certain homogenisation of the statutes in which territories with different features of self-government, such as South Tyrol, Aosta, or Sicily, could lose ground.