Dreams of independence

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 September, 1996, 12:00am

Heaving a sigh of relief that the breakup of Yugoslavia did not turn into an all-out Balkan war, it might be thought the last thing Europe needed was more regionalism, more small states crying about what makes them different.

But enter the Republic of Padania, the Italian Northern League's vision of an independent state formed from prosperous northern Italy.

It would be a republic without the corruption, the laziness, the backwardness and crime of southern Italy, free to become a wealthy state in its own right, the 16th member of the European Union.

The vision of Northern League leader Umberto Bossi suffered a set back when what he thought would be a mass rally of maybe 500,000 to declare this vision an independent reality instead attracted only a few thousand in his capital city Venice.

But it has not gone away - although this week Mr Bossi agreed to talks over degrees of autonomy with the leading party in the government coalition - nor have all the other regionalisms which threaten at the worst case to turn the map of Europe into how it must have looked in the 19th century, a continent of principalities, duchies and left-over remains of once-powerful city states.

After all, Italy was only created as a unified state in 1870 partially by consensus, partially by force. Italians have never got used to the idea, they remain Milanese, Neapolitans or Romans first, Italians second.

European states have not been united for long historically and in many areas regionalism or petty nationalism is only just below the surface - ready to be ignited at a politician's whim.

Secession does not always have to be violent. The Czech and Slovakian republics, united since 1918, divorced peacefully four years ago.

It was the relatively poor Slovakian side which wanted to be free of what is an increasingly affluent Czech Republic.

Led by a former Communist Vladimir Meciar, Slovaks, for so long used to accepting the word of communist leaders, did as they were told and voted for independence.

The Czechs were happy to let them go. Now Slovaks, watching as their states drift apart in terms of prosperity, see the move as ridiculous, yet irreversible.

Elsewhere Slovenia crept away from the former Yugoslavia with just one day of skirmishes against the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army.

It was not that easy for Croatia or Bosnia.

The reasons behind the new regionalism are multi-faceted. The arguments of those in Northern Ireland pull both ways - loyalists towards Britain, nationalists towards Ireland.

Their rhetoric is largely historic and ethnic. But there is an economic dimension with the Catholic minority in the North, the nationalists, traditionally at the bottom of the pile.

The arguments of nationalist groups in nations such as Wales and Scotland are again typical of such calls.

To put it crudely, they are being ripped off by Big Brother England, with its power base in London hundreds of unthinking kilometres away.

Corsica too has long felt neglected by France and would like more autonomy or independence.

The argument for Mr Bossi's Padania is in some ways the opposite - it is almost like England saying it wants to be free of poorer Wales.

Padania would claim the territory of industrial, hardworking northern Italy, free of the inefficiencies of the central government in Rome in the south.

To Rome Mr Bossi is an irresponsible hooligan, wrecking the nation state that despite its many inefficiencies has held together in peace.

The same argument of the prosperous region wanting to secede from poorer neighbours might apply to Catalonia, arguably the most wealthy area of Spain.

But there the debate shifts slightly as the Catalonians see themselves as culturally and ethnically different from the rest of Spain.

Few northern Italians would say they were ethnically different from their southern cousins - but Mr Bossi is working on it.

He claims northern Italy is an area of Celtic people like the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish and the people of Brittany in northern France.

The Basques, many of whom want independence in northern Spain, would claim to be different ethnically from their neighbours. But the Basque area is a relatively poor one, thus making it a non-starter in terms of independence, which is probably why its fight has always been so violent. While the Czech and Slovak example of divorce is outside the European Union most, if not all, of the other nationalist tensions within Europe lie within the borders of the EU.

The coming European monetary union feeds into these regionalist ambitions.

Mr Bossi may be right when he suggests that prosperous Padania would benefit greatly from centralist monetary policies devised in Brussels rather than being shackled and paying for the inefficient south.

His regionalism is in that sense different to the nationalism manifested by Britain's so-called Eurosceptics on the right of the Conservative Party who fear the might of Brussels eroding national sovereignty.

Regionalism is certainly not discouraged by EU policies. The European Commission in Brussels hands out grants for major projects on a regional basis, it encourages regions to make direct approaches for aid without the need to go through central government.

The rallying calls of parties such as the Welsh and Scottish nationalists are that they are independent regions or nations but within Europe.

They question why should Edinburgh or Cardiff have to go cap in hand to London when those cities can deal directly with the Brussels-based union.

Mr Bossi's argument is the same. He claims growing union within Europe will render national governments powerless anachronisms.

As a European identity develops then the future will lie in a federation of self-governing European regions.

Mr Bossi argues, for instance, that the new model of European politics should not be between left and right but between centralism and federalism.

But he is failing so far, too many people have seen through him and do not want the risk his view entails.

They suspect his motives. His green-shirted cadres are a nasty reminder of other times, other uniforms.

Strictly speaking Padania should also include a good part of the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland. But who would ever see the Swiss gently letting that go.

Many of his arguments are shallow too. Corruption in Italy knows no geographical frontiers - and arguably the wealthy north has thrived for decades on the sweat of cheap southern labour.

The Northern League may prove to be a temporary phenomenon. Italian politics felt shock waves from the collapse of communism in 1989. For years the Christian Democrats had been in power largely because of the threat of the communists, the main opposition party.

When the communists were no longer a threat the Christian Democrats fell apart, massive corruption was exposed and Italian politics turned head over heels.

But the problems he makes for Rome today also bear lessons for other states.

Germany has been largely free of regionalism of late despite the potential problems caused by reunification.

Germany manages its regionalisms through a federal structure, the kind of model that Italy may have to look to if it is to survive. But Chancellor Helmut Kohl also has to monitor whether or not that federal structure can keep regionalism in check and keep a clear eye on the regional centre of Munich, capital of Bavaria, which has always felt at least a cut above the rest of the country.

Elsewhere globalisation can be seen as weakening the power of the nation state. Increasingly regionalism in Europe is being seen as that of rich areas wanting to go their own way.

In most countries this is not strong enough to actually threaten the state.Yet.

But it is wrong to view such situations as static. Belgium's Flemish and French speakers have lived together in relatively contemptuous harmony for decades. But even there a latent division is growing.

The crisis in the police and the government caused by the present paedophile revelations has demonstrated to many an ineptitude going beyond just the performance of certain key ministers and is increasingly being seen as a rumbling threat to Belgium's existence as a unified whole.

Within the EU regional groups are still a long way from winning majority support in the areas they cover. Mr Bossi's share of the vote in the north is below 40 per cent and falling, the Catalans are content to remain within Spain and even Basque nationalism is on the decline.

The lessons of Yugoslavia show the cost that has to be paid if you try to hold people to a country they do not want to belong to, but they have also demonstrated that anything other than the most delicate handling of regionalism and petty nationalism is playing with fire.