Venice ponders dumping Italy, going it alone

  • Article by: HENRY CHU
  • Los Angeles Times
  • December 26, 2012 - 8:46 PM

VENICE, ITALY - During most of the past 1,200 years, this watery Italian city was a nation unto itself -- powerful, prosperous and proud.

Now, many of its residents are convinced that their best shot at the future lies in turning back the clock.

Venice and the surrounding region, known as the Veneto, would be much better off as an independent state again, uncoupled from Italy, a growing number of people say. They're tired of paying billions of dollars in taxes to Rome, only to see the money frittered away on other, less productive parts of the country.

So this year, thousands of Venetians signed a petition demanding a divorce from their fellow Italians. A declaration of independence was delivered -- by gondola, of course -- to regional officials, who are considering a possible referendum on breaking away.

"We say we don't need Rome," said Lodovico Pizzati, an economics professor who is leading the campaign. "We have our right of self-determination."

The Veneto, home to such well-known brands as Benetton and Electrolux, has flirted with separatism in the past. Independence advocates like to point out that modern Italy is a young creation, barely 150 years old, whereas Venice's glorious history stretches back much further.

People here have long felt distinct from other Italians -- they speak their own dialect -- and their industriousness helps subsidize the poorer south, which is just how the politicians down in Rome like it, residents complain.

"We get taxed like the Scandinavians, but our services are like Albania," Pizzati said. "We are a rich region that has no political power."

His dream, of an independent Venice taking its place alongside other countries in the European Union, may be unlikely. But it's by no means unique.

Secessionist movements, some serious, some quixotic, have sprouted across Europe. Scots will vote in 2014 whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or end Britain as we know it. Catalonians want out of Spain. The Flemish are debating withdrawal from Belgium.

Many of these movements are fueled by economic resentment, richer regions eager to shake off poor ones as Europe battles a lingering debt crisis and enacts draconian spending cuts. To critics, such discord makes a mockery of the E.U. and the harmony it's supposed to embody.

But a number of analysts contend that, far from pointing up its failure, the various separatist movements actually attest to the E.U.'s success in bringing comity and stability to a continent torn apart by two world wars, an achievement for which the 27-nation body last week was presented the Nobel Peace Prize.

Under the E.U.'s reassuring wing, it doesn't matter that an independent Scotland or Veneto would each have only about 5 million citizens; Denmark has about that many. The tiny nations of Malta and Luxembourg, which not only belong to the E.U. but also the more exclusive group of 17 nations using the euro, boast only 1 million people between them.

In many ways, the European Union has created the very conditions that now make independence for disaffected regions or minorities seem like a viable option.

Virtually no secessionists talk about their homelands going it alone, a brave new nation striking out on its own in the world. Rather, their rallying cries of freedom for Scotland, Catalonia or Flanders are invariably followed in the same breath by a description of their aspiring country as a card-carrying member of a strong, durable European Union.

They see the E.U. as a bulwark in an increasingly competitive, globalized world. As a member of a club that wields immeasurably more clout -- financial, diplomatic, military -- than they would have on their own, small nations can thrive without fear of getting left behind or trampled over, benefiting from the trade deals the E.U. wins on behalf of all members or from its common foreign policy.

"The E.U. changes the equation," said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute, a Brussels-based think tank. "If you're looking at the cost benefit of independence, having the E.U. there as the guarantor of peace and stability, to some extent, and also providing regulations and rules that you might need as a small state" can tip the balance.

"The E.U. is dressed up as a community of countries that was specifically designed to avoid the dominance of any one country," Grabbe said.

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