A new phase for Italy’s regional system? The referendums in Lombardy and Veneto on greater autonomy

On Sunday 22 October voters in the Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto expressed their support for greater regional autonomy in two consultative referendums. Is this the start of a new attempt at overhauling and modernising Italy’s two-track regional system, after a constitutional reform proposal that would have re-centralised Italy’s regional system (and reformed its bicameralism) was rejected in December 2016? Jens Woelk provides an overview of recent developments in Italy and suggests that despite the two referendums in favour of more autonomy, consensus and a coherent design for reforms of the Italian system are still lacking.

What kind of answer do you expect to the question, ‘Do you like chocolate?’ The answer seems obvious. The same applies to the question asked in consultative referendums held in wealthy regions in northern Italy on Sunday 22 October: ‘Are you in favour of greater autonomy (for your region)’? As widely expected, including by the organisers, the results were positive. In Veneto, the threshold of 50% established for the validity of the consultation was not a problem: with a turnout of 57.2% an overwhelming 98.1% voted in favour. Although the turnout in Lombardy, where no threshold applied, was considerably lower (38.34%), the ‘Yes’ votes were a large majority (95.29%) there too.

Narrowing the gap between the two tracks of Italy’s regional system?

The asymmetrical Italian regional system consists of five autonomous or ‘special’ regions and of 15 ‘ordinary’ regions. While the Constitution itself contains detailed regulations regarding the latter, the autonomy of each special region is individually based upon a special ‘statuto’. This Act with constitutional rank lists legislative powers and administrative functions and contains specific institutional and financial arrangements. There are peculiar features in each special region; these and their powers distinguish special regions from ordinary ones which have fewer (and no exclusive) competencies and only generic guarantees of financial resources.

A constitutional reform in 2001 aimed at narrowing the gap between the two categories by strengthening the powers of the ordinary regions (therefore the reform is widely known as ‘federalisation reform’). However, the ambitious reform did not produce positive results, due to a combination of poor and slow implementation; passivity of the regions themselves, which hardly made use of their new powers; and the activity of the Constitutional Court, which has  at times overturned the devolutionary logic of the reform in order to preserve the unity of the state and the co-ordinating function of central government.

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