An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
(University of Bologna)
Over the past three decades a major new fault line has emerged in European politics. This has manifested itself in calls for various demands of autonomy – and in some cases outright secession – from autonomist and regionalist parties in direct conflict with a Europe of the ‘Nation-States’, which in their view has been denying them their right to self-determination.
A key player in this ‘Europe of the Regions’ has been the Italian Northern League (Lega Nord) whose position on the EU since the 1980s has swung dramatically from Euro-enthusiast to Euro-sceptic.
Fillipo Tronconi reflects on the development of the Lega Nord’s relationship with the EU, its cross-party groups and its institutions in the broader context of greater European integration.
The concept of the ‘Europe of the Regions’, at least in its most ambitious/enthusiastic form, only enjoyed a brief period of success between the beginning of the 1980s and the end of the 1990s. During this period, in which the level of regional government was emerging as more powerful, in many European states the central idea of the Europe of the Regions was that the regions would be able to bypass state level of government and play a key role in the definition and implementation of public policy in the European Union. This was seen as beneficial from the point of view of the EU’s elites: bringing local institutions closer to their territory, its specific problems and thus contributing to their economic development (principally with the ‘structural funds’) would at least in part have helped reduce the problem of the democratic deficit of the EU and of its perceived distance from the problems of its common citizens. From the point of view of the regions, they understandably had a vested interest in finding a supranational level of government through which they would be able to expand their power at the expense of the nation states. The regionalist parties naturally favoured this process and, consequently, the majority of them declared themselves in favour of the process of European integration. On the whole, regionalist parties continue up to this day to be in favour of European integration, with some exceptions – in particular parties which adhere to the more extremist ideologies. I would not say that the EU has played a fundamental role in the development of this party family, even if certainly the idea of enhanced autonomy (or even independence) of the regions, finds a strong rhetorical argument when autonomy is linked to the values and regulatory framework of the European Union.
This proposal, just as was the proposal of a ‘Europe of the Regions’, is completely unrealistic. Just how unrealistic became clear after the first wave of Eastern European countries were admitted into the EU. An EU of 28 member states is already a terribly difficult organisation to govern; how would it be possible to govern a Europe formed by hundreds of regions? Actually, the Lega Nord, behind the rhetoric of the Europe of the Peoples, is a fiercely euro-sceptic party. One only needs to look at the party’s campaign for the last European elections, in which the Lega Nord made an Italian exit from the common European currency its principal political message. To put forward this argument means to tear the European Union down, not to change it. It is, naturally, a legitimate political position. However, one which should not be masked behind contradictory slogans.
The Lega Nord is a party of two faces. On the one hand it is undoubtedly a regionalist party which owes much of its electoral success to the interests and requests of territorial autonomy expressed by a significant part of the population of the northern regions. On the other hand, the Lega Nord is also, without doubt, a party with important points in common with the populist radical right of other European countries. In addition, it is a party which, since having a significant representation at a national level, has been solidly allied with parties of the right (with a brief parenthesis between 1996 and 1999). Secondly, the Lega, alongside parties such as the Austrian Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs or the French Front National, has always asked for restrictive immigration measures and for limitations on concessions of citizenship to immigrants and children of immigrants. From the end of the 1990s onwards euro-scepticism became a key feature of the Lega Nord, adding one more point of similarity with other populist radical right parties. However, up until Italy’s entry into the EMU/Euro, the Lega Nord actually held an openly Euro-enthusiastic position. Their slogan, in the middle of the 1990s, was that Padania would be able to meet the requirements of the Maastricht Treaty, if it were not for the economic burden of the South. The hypothesis, therefore, was that Padania would be able to realise secession from the rest of Italy and be able to enter the European currency immediately. The cosying up to the radical right seems to have gained greater impetus of late with the transfer of the leadership from Maroni to Salvini. In a certain way this has completed the transition of the Lega to the radical right European party family with Salvini moving the Lega closer to Marine le Pen’s Front National after the elections of 2014. Meanwhile, the traditional discourse of fiscal federalism has been, at least for the moment, put on the back burner. In the European parliament, the Lega followed a similar path. During its formative period, this party aspired to enter in the European Free Alliance parliamentary group, where the majority of regionalist parties sit (but not all of them!), but was not accepted by the other parties. From that moment its membership to groups has repeatedly shifted, but it has always turned to parliamentary groups to the right of the Popular Party.
No. On the contrary, the majority of the European regionalist parties interprets the demand for cultural and institutional autonomy as a recognition of the added value of the ‘Other’, intended, therefore, as a reinforcement of differences and cultural pluralism. In some European areas such as Catalonia, Galicia, Wales and Brittany, autonomism is first and foremost a demand that the state recognises that different cultures, represented by minority languages and more generally by a distinct cultural identity, co-exist within the state. In these regions, autonomism means more than anything respect for minorities and acceptance of pluralism. This can’t be anything but in complete contrast with the idea of exclusive citizenship expressed by the nationalism of the Right, which instead proposes an idea of a political community (of polity) based on a monolithic, pure, natural culture, to which the ‘Other’ is an invader and a bringer of impurity. Instead in the cases which I have cited above, as in many others, nationalism is strongly tied with the idea of inclusive citizenship, which is instead close to the post-materialist and post-libertarian Left-wing.
The ‘four motors’ originally represented an avant-garde of the Europe of the Regions which I mentioned above. Four regions of four different states proposed to carry out joint development policies, bypassing their respective states and bringing forward forms of inter-regional cooperation which would later find other expressions in the EU, such as the so-called Euroregions. 25 years after the original pact of cooperation (1988) it does not seem to me that this group of regions has exactly given an irresistible impulse to the development of European integration. Maybe because in the meantime the regions have acquired greater political space within European institutions (for example with the birth of the Committee of the Regions in 1994). Or maybe because with the Maastricht Treaty and even more with the Schengen agreement and with the common currency the need for enhanced cooperation between territories was greatly reduced. In short, no, I do not expect a particularly strong impact of the four motors of Europe on European politics in the near future, independently of the parties in government in each of the four regions.
Fillipo Tronconi is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna. He is currently serving as a member of the editorial board of the Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica and of the yearbook Politica in Italia/Italian Politics. His main research interests are in the territorial aspects of political competition, in party politics, political elites and legislative behaviour. He has published many articles and book chapters on ethno-regionalist parties in Europe and has co-edited the volume From Protest to Power. Autonomist Parties and the Challenges of Representation (Wien: Braumuller, 2001).