Autonomy and the Federal State, a conflictive issue within the coalition government in Italy


After the Meloni government (born on 22 October) has completed its first 100 days in office, and once the General State Budget Law (PGE) has been passed, the new President of the Council of Ministers has an important problem to solve with regard to the stability of the coalition on the table: Whether the so-called "autonomist" cause promoted by Salvini's Lega, which dates back to the times when Umberto Bossi was leader (remember that this historic party was born in 1987), will finally come to fruition after several failed attempts.

And here the clash is precisely between the party of the "premier" Meloni (Brothers of Italy) and that of Matteo Salvini, currently Deputy Prime Minister and holder of the Infrastructure portfolio. Although both parties are, in practice, right-wing (as opposed to Forza Italia, which is more to the centre-right), their concept of the territorial organisation of the state differs very substantially. Let us say it clearly: Meloni's party has represented, since the times when Gianfranco Fini headed the National Alliance, the main defender of Roman centralism, starting with the fact that Meloni herself is a Roman and then the large group of ministers who also belong to the capital of both the state and the Lazio region. In contrast, Salvini's Lega is a formation whose main core of voters is historically concentrated in two regions, Lombardy and Veneto, both located in the northernmost part of the country and both considered (particularly Lombardy) the economic engine of the eurozone's third largest economy.

Salvini, who has already forgotten his famous slogan of "Italy for the Italians" and who, due to his disastrously low level of support in the last general elections, now finds himself in the hands of the "champions" of autonomism (who are basically Bossi's "ideological children", including the Minister of Economy and Finance himself, Giancarlo Giorgetti), believes that the time has come to revive the creation of a federal state in the style of Germany, Spain or even the United States. And yet it does not have a parliamentary chamber representing the territories. Matteo Renzi tried this when he was Prime Minister (February 2014-December 2016), who, through the "referendum" formula, sought public support for the Senate to become a "Chamber of the regions", which would have been the classic model of a bicameral Parliament where national sovereignty is represented in the lower chamber and the territories in the upper chamber. As is well known, the voters unceremoniously overturned Renzi's proposal (which had made the mistake of giving too much power to the lower chamber as opposed to the traditional "perfect bicameralism" instituted by the 1948 Constitution) by 41% in favour to 59% against, and the immediate consequence was Renzi's resignation and his stepping down from the presidency of the Council of Ministers, at the head of which he had served for no less than 1,020 consecutive days.

Those who advocate autonomism and, in practice, a federal state, consider it to be a much more efficient way of making public institutions work, of channelling resources to the areas that need them most and, in essence, to a kind of shared government between the central government and the governments of each region, as opposed to the current model, in which the government in Rome has a strong hierarchy over the regions, which can discuss certain decisions with the central executive but which, in the end, have to assume that the government in the national capital (Rome) has the last word.

In reality, what really lies behind this is the attempt by the richer regions, through a single institution for the whole country in charge of collecting taxes, to control how much of these taxes go to the central state and how much is retained by each and every region. The reality is that both Lombardy and Veneto have been fed up for decades with giving money to other regions (especially in the south) and seeing how it is not used to create new centres of industrial promotion and development (as did happen in the 1960s, driven by the governments of the Christian Democrats (DC), which led to the start-up of important industries in Bari and Brindisi (Puglia), Agrigento (Sicily) and Cagliari (Sardinia)). And the Lega has already forgotten the famous "Padania" invented by Umberto Bossi, which included the richest regions and wanted to separate itself from the rest of the nation: but it is one thing to abandon the idea of segregating some regions and another, quite different and more feasible, to move from centralism to federalism.

The problem for Salvini and his party and government colleagues is that, although their party is decisive in keeping the current government in place (which would be left in a minority without the almost 100 Lega MPs), this is not exactly the best time to put autonomism on the table. The huge public debt (which some estimate at 152% of GDP and others at 154%, in both cases almost a hundred points above the Stability and Growth Pact, which sets the rules for membership of the single currency) is already putting the Meloni government in serious difficulties, because the successive interest rate hikes decreed by the European Central Bank (the latest, to bring them to 3% in February) are in direct collision with the most indebted economies in the European Union, which are, in that order, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and France, all of them with a national debt exceeding 110% of GDP.

This means that an ageing country like Italy, with only nine of its sixty million inhabitants under the age of 18 and 15 million pensioners, has to spend around 93 billion euros of its budget just to pay interest on its debt. So it is not the best time to reconsider the autonomy issue when the "premier" Meloni has to face a more and more delicate economic situation. As Mario Draghi said last summer, in his last appearance as President of the Council of Ministers: "(...) we will be the fastest growing country in 2022 among the major economies of the eurozone (by the way, in the end the Spain of President Sánchez has ended up surpassing it by far), but I cannot deny that I see important dark clouds on the horizon". And those storm clouds are already clearly visible and threaten to unload a lot and very hard.

The advantage for Meloni is that the legislature has only just begun; on the other hand, without the votes of Salvini and his party he cannot govern. But the conflict is already on the table: Roman centralism and "legista" autonomism could coexist when Forza Italia was the main party in the coalition, but now it is the third largest. It remains to be seen whether this legislature will definitively mark the transition from a centralist state (the only exception being five regions, such as Sardinia, Sicily and Valle d'Aosta, which have a special status) to a federal state. But the reality is that Salvini has lacked the time to put it in the public debate and thereby create a problem for the "premier" Meloni, who already knew, from the moment she accepted the "incarico" of forming a government, that she would have a permanent nuisance in Matteo Salvini.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Professor at the Camilo José Cela University and author of Historia de la Italia republicana (Sílex Ediciones, 2021).