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First Scotland, then Catalonia: Now Milan and Venice step up calls for greater autonomy

  • Two of Italy's wealthiest regions are poised to hold a referendum on greater autonomy Sunday
  • Lombardy and Veneto, two northern regions home to about a quarter of Italy's population, are pushing for more control over their finances and administrations
A Venetian autonomist screams pro independence slogan on April 25, 2014 in Venice, Italy. The march, which takes place on St Mark's day, had been banned by the Police for reasons of public order.
Marco Secchi/Getty Images
A Venetian autonomist screams pro independence slogan on April 25, 2014 in Venice, Italy. The march, which takes place on St Mark's day, had been banned by the Police for reasons of public order.

Two of Italy's wealthiest regions are poised to hold a referendum on greater autonomy Sunday, marking the latest bids by European regions to wrestle more power away from the establishment.

Lombardy and Veneto, two northern regions home to about a quarter of Italy's population, are pushing for more control over their finances and administrations.

Milan and Venice, the respective capitals of Lombardy and Veneto, have both campaigned for total independence from Rome in the past.

However, lawmakers have agreed ahead of the forthcoming ballots that Sunday's vote is about fiscal autonomy and not secession. And while both votes have been authorized by the relevant state institutions, the referendum results will not be legally binding.

The exercise of a European region holding a vote for greater autonomy is not uncommon in recent years. The upcoming votes in Italy follow Scotland in 2014, Brexit last year and Catalonia in September.

Victory for the yes campaign 'very likely'

The Northern League – Italy's populist anti-immigrant party – controls the governors in both Lombardy and Veneto and is the main sponsor for the two initiatives.

Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence, said the Northern League will be hopeful of a "very likely" yes victory on a high turnout because it will provide significant bargaining power in future negotiations with Rome over the distribution of tax revenues.

Meanwhile, in the short run the Northern League "is seeking to secure a major political boost ahead of next year's general elections," Piccoli said in a research note.

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for securing greater autonomy from the center boils down to money. The president of Veneto, Luca Zaia, and his counterpart in Lombardy, Roberto Maroni, have both claimed that they felt forced to host a referendum after dialogue with lawmakers in Italy's capital broke down.

Both regional leaders reportedly said they each send over 50 billion euros ($59 billion) more of their taxes to Rome than they get back.

While Five Star Movement, the insurgent populist party, has thrown its support behind each campaign, the governing Democratic party has called on citizens in both areas to abstain Sunday.

A non-binding victory for greater autonomy in both Lombardy and Veneto is widely expected.