The Republic of Venice – a Floating Return?

Italy, as we know it today, is perhaps more of a political construct that a natural entity. The Italian process of unification in the nineteenth century took the best part of 60 years, drawing in kingdoms and states on the peninsula and in the northern hub, with much bloodshed and political controversy. Now in contemporary Italy, the region of Veneto, situated in the northeast where the ‘boot meets Europe’ is calling for increased autonomy. One of 20 Italian Regions, Veneto encompasses the cities of the regional capital Venice, Verona, Padua and Vicenza among others, and shares many similar qualms with other northern Italian states – primarily, that the industrious north heavily subsidises the unproductive south. Historically, there always was a degree of economic difference between the north and south on the Italian peninsula, not least due to climate, but since the formation of an Italian central government and the diversification of monetary policy, this dichotomy has become more recognisable. Venetian nationalism, known as Venetism (or Venetismo), has also been grouped together with other European political movements that call for regional secession from central state governments, including Kosovo from Serbia, Transnistria from Moldova, and in the West, Scotland from the United Kingdom and Cataluña from Spain.

Tenets of Venetism

The core motivation behind a Venetian break with Italy is a duality between historical cultural identity and contemporary economic qualms. In history, of course, the Republic of Venice existed as a powerful trading empire for over a millennium, from the 7th century when it was a guardhouse for the protection of Lombardy during the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, to the middle ages and the 18th century as it became, and matured as, a global economic power. Venice, and the lagoon communities surrounding the fish-shaped island, was the capital of an empire that, over the years, collected many other ports and trading posts in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, including the coastlines of modern Slovenia and Croatia, parts of Greece and European Turkey, and islands such as Crete and Cyprus. The vast and continuous time period had distinct implications for cultural development, which was unique and elaborate, fostering artists such as Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and Titian, and architecture as seen in the Doge’s Palace in the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal.

 

Rialto Bridge
Rialto Bridge

There also exists a language, spoken as a native tongue by over two million people, according to communication publication Ethnologue. Known as either Venetian or Venetan, the language is commonly thought of as a dialect of Italian, although it in fact has distinct phonetic and grammatical differences that place it in a different language group. It is estimated that around seven million Italians can speak and/or understand Venetian, and thus the language is often used as a tangible factor in the Venetic promotion of a culture distinct from that of the rest of Italy. Combined with nostalgia for historical independence, power and autonomy, and the vast array of cultural developments fostered in Veneto, a distinct language forms a base for an independence movement in the region.

Of course, much has changed in the world, and it is not necessarily strong enough to claim independence and form a nationalist movement based entirely on culture. The dynamic of the world system, from finance to politics to economics, do not make such an idea of impermeable logic. But, in the case of Venice and Veneto, there is a case for an economic split, as mentioned previously. While, statistically, Veneto may not be economically stronger than Italy as a whole (although it does make up around 7.5% of Italian nominal GDP, more than its fair share), it is the third fastest growing region after Lombardy – which includes Milan and the northern lakes – and Lazio – which includes Rome. Veneto also enters into the debate on the north-south divide, and the statistics are more generous in this conflict. In terms of GDP per capita (PPP), provided by Europa statistics, northwest and northeast regions are 10% more productive than central regions (including Tuscany and Rome), and a whopping 70% more productive than southern regions and ‘Insular Italy’ (Sardinia and Sicily). Since the 1960s, policies have been put in place to channel government income southward to develop and reconstruct the struggling regions after the political strife of the Second World War. However, according to pro-northern analysts, these favourable funding policies have only made the south reliant on the surplus income generated from the north; and hence, several northern states, including Veneto, have not only lost confidence in central Italian economic management, but the idea of an Italian union altogether, giving rise to nationalist ideas such at Venetism.

Contemporary Veneto itself probably deserves to feel hard done by for political reasons too. It currently holds status as an Ordinary Region, one of 20 that were formed in the Italian Constitution of 1948 and reorganised in 1970; however, five of those 20 regions hold ‘Autonomous Status’, which allow them the power to dictate the terms of their own legislature, finance and administration. These five, made up by Sardinia, Sicily and three regions in the north bordering Italian neighbours, were granted such autonomy for two reasons: firstly, to protect cultural differences perpetuated by the Italian unification, and secondly, to ensure they did not secede from the Italian republic after the Second World War. Economically, Veneto outperforms each of the five by at least double their nominal GDP, and would certainly vie for their distinction from Italian central government should the opportunity arise.

Comparison

It is probably more useful to picture Venetism as a movement within the northern Italian nationalist force when comparing it to other examples of European independence politics. A common parallel is made with Cataluña in Spain, where the economic development of Barcelona and the surrounding provinces contributes far more than its fair share to the wider Spanish economy. The Catalan language and culture, perhaps more so than its equivalent in Venice, also distinguishes the region from Spain, having enjoyed independence until the War of the Spanish Succession in the early eighteenth century. Since the death of Franco in 1975, Catalan institutions have returned to prominence in Barcelona, and a referendum is due to be held in November of 2014 – which, incidentally, will not be acknowledged by the Spanish government. While there is antagonism between Spain and Cataluña that perhaps does not exist as of yet between Italy and Veneto, the self-determinist movement in Barcelona may catalyse some forward thinking in Venice.

The Scots, too, are holding a referendum in September of 2014, focused on whether Scotland should withdraw from the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland (this website has published previously on the Scottish independence movement, see http://wp.me/p3g0mz-63). However, the debate in the UK is a little different, mainly because, while the Scottish cultural argument might be strong, the economic one is not. It is generally agreed that London and the Southeast of England plays a strong role in the economic strength of the rest of the UK, and after the main political parties slammed the Scottish nationalist intention to retain the English pound sterling earlier this year, it looks like Scotland will be forced to make its bid for independence on politics and culture alone. This is where Venetism looks strong, in that it can argue on the basis of economics, culture, politics and history, where other regions within Italy, and other movements throughout Europe, cannot.

Conclusion

Often neglected by macroeconomists, politicians and political analysts, the will of the people needs to be taken into account in all debates on nationalism. Some Venetian nationalists refer back to the invalidity of a poll held in 1861, when Veneto was officially annexed by the Kingdom of Italy, as justification for another referendum on Venetian independence. The statistics on contemporary opinion suggest that should one be held, as is being done in Cataluña and Scotland, the Venetians would probably vote to secede from the Italian Republic. Supporters of the referendum have already approached various international institutions, including the European Union, requesting support for the vote against the Italian government. An unofficial online referendum, held after little support was gained from the EU, was taken by 65% of eligible voters in the Veneto region in 2012, with 85% voting pro-independence. The nationalist rhetoric is well and truly fired up; Italy and Europe could well be seeing a resurgent Republic of Venice on the horizon if no one moves to satisfy the qualms laid out above.

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