When it comes to devolution, be careful what you wish for. Angelo Salento explains how it went wrong in Italy.
We Italians tend to be believe our politics and history are unique. But there is a clear parallel between Italy’s experience of devolution and the description by Carol Craig of what happened in the Scottish referendum debate. She argued the Scottish debate was built on a misleading opposition and a false choice between optimism and pessimism. This is not a peculiarity of the Scottish situation, because much the same can be said about Italy’s experience.
In principle, decentralisation projects encourage optimism amongst democrats and progressives. Devolution protects local identities based on differences, while promoting the kind of autonomy and self-reliance that underpins progressive conceptions of social and economic development.
What is local can feel more authentic, less artificial. It can build participation, because what is centralised is by definition hierarchical. Local space is defined, grounded and democratic. We may lose faith in the idea of national utopias, but we retain our hopes for the local utopias.
So, progressives have a bias towards federalism. A well intended federal project can float on an optimism of the will. Against this, the disappointing experience of federalism produces a pessimism of the intellect. This is the case in Italy when we review the outcome of the constitutional reform that started in 1997 and which gave Italian regions unprecedented powers. Nearly 20 years later, the outcomes are unhappily different from what progressives hoped for.
One effect of the reforms has been to butress the claims for independence in the richest North Italian regions. The ‘federalist’ turn has justified the idea that North Italy is a victim of South Italy – that the rich are victims of the poor.
How could a progressive constitutional reform become perverted into such coarse reasoning? Part of the answer is that Italy devolved power in the 1990s when all across Europe the intellectual climate was changing so that Europe became a continent of competing territories. The imperative of competition – and more recently its companion, austerity – has become the basis of policy. Social cohesion has suffered as a result.
Consequently, the Italian reforms have exacerbated the divide between North and South. The reform devolved major functions to the regions – including those which affect the fundamental rights of citizens, like education, environment and health care. The result, especially since the 2008 crisis, has been that differences in regional resources and variable budget constraints have produced gross inequalities in social spending and quality of provision. Public spending on social services is over €200 per capita in some Northern regions, but less than €50 per capita in some parts of the South. This is simultaneously devolution to the South and secession by the North.
The nature and detail of the reforms was never made clear under Italy’s decentralisation reforms. This lack of clarity boosted the confidence, indeed megalomania, of the regional political class. This in turn produced institutional conflicts and endless litigation. In the last decade, and particularly since the crisis, Italy’s Constitutional Court has had to settle a growing number of disputes between the central state and regions. The increase in cases – from 52 in 2007 to 220 in 2012 – has created a demanding new workload for the Court.
The disputes relate to political struggles between central and regional elites. Ministries fiercely defend their prerogatives. The presidents of the regions, in turn, have gained excessive power and are now called ‘governors’ in journalistic jargon. Since 1999 regional presidents have been directly elected by citizens and have an absolute power over the executive, since the president (not the legislative assembly) directly appoints an executive committee. Under the banner of devolution, the regions have built a ‘post-democratic’ structure rather than a renewed democracy. The point is proved by the decline in turnout in regional elections: in Puglia, for example, voters’ turnout declined from about 85% in 1990 to 51% in 2015.
Twenty years after 1990s devolution, Italy should now be a national state, with 20 regions benefiting from enhanced political and economic autonomy. In fact, the result is 20 principalities, without an adequate national state. The crisis has affected all the principalities; many of the poorer ones are in a miserable condition. But there is limited scope to put this right: for several important functions there is no longer a unitary state requirement. Italians in principle have equal rights, but these are denied by the quasi-democratic or post-democratic institutions of devolved power. Even the equality of political rights is compromised, because every region establishes its own electoral law. Some have a party representation threshold of 3%, another at 5%, while others have a threshold at 8%. This suggests some regions feel uncomfortable with democracy.
What are the lessons of Italian devolution? The ideal of autonomy and self-determination in a Europe of territories is as valuable as ever. But Italy shows how the pursuit of regional autonomy can go wrong. It can boost political egos, chauvinism, the victim complex and a demand to put right the supposed wrongs of a long distant past.
Localism needs to be rethought because it should not produce a reckless plunge into national and international competition, nor a closed economy. Europe should abandon the neo-liberal obsession for competition and instead strengthen its foundational economy, build the infrastructure of social life and create the conditions for a full social citizenship.