- LIVE TV
For more than a thousand years she sparkled as the jewel of the Adriatic, her reputation as a global centre for trade and culture even earning her the grand title “La Serenissima”, or the Most Serene Republic of Venice.
And tomorrow, the land that gave birth to Casanova and Vivaldi could find itself on the path to independence once more, as Venetians take to the polls in a vote that may see them cast aside 150 years of Italian unification.
Tensions are running high. On Friday 25 Caribinieri military police officers broke up an interview with Russian TV in front of the Doge’s Palace in Venice and arrested independence organizers for flying the flag of St Mark.
A 1997 ordinance made it illegal to display the Lion, symbol of the ancient Venetian republic, in St Mark’s Square.
Yet while Britons pondering Scottish independence in September are witnessing a very public battle, few on the rest of the Italian boot are even aware of the constitutional challenge that could alter the face of Italy forever.
Over the next five days up to four million Venetians will be given the chance to go to the polls and vote on whether Veneto, one of Italy’s three wealthiest regions, should secede from Italy and become an “independent and sovereign federal republic”.
The “plebiscito” will also ask voters to tick “si” or “no” to EU membership, and to vote for delegates to lead the new republic out of a list of 30 candidates.
At stake for angry Venetians is the £17billion in taxes separatists claim are “stolen” from Veneto’s coffers every year by Rome to prop up a failing Italian economy.
The region which, apart from Venice, includes the cities of Verona, Padua, Vicenza and Treviso, has a working population of 3.8million and a healthy annual GDP of around £120billion.
Half, however, leaves the region in national taxes, contributing around 10 per cent of Italy’s GDP.
While Rome ploughs £40bn back to its cities and infrastructure, Veneto remains a member of the tiny club of regions, including, Lombardy, Emilgli Romagna and Piedmont, who are net contributors to the Italian treasury. The other sixteen regions rely on state contributions to stay afloat.
“Put simply, hard working venetians have had their fill of propping up a failing state,” said Gianluca Busato, one of the fathers behind of the present bid for independence.
“The citizens of Veneto have proven themselves to be the most loyal to Italy by paying the highest taxes.
“And yet our hospitals, once famous for their quality, are failing because they are being starved of investment. We are wealthy but out roads aren’t paved with gold.
“We have more in common with our northern European neighbours than we do Southern Italians. Austria and Switzerland are very near to us, and in those countries you see everything works. No one is forced to work 16 hours a day for tiny wage to prop up a bloated bureaucracy.
“We need to keep our taxes, to free our economy from this Italian prison and secure our future. It is rational, not emotional. “
A poll last month showed 64 per cent of Venetians in favour of independence, and support crosses political boundaries.
Though traditionally favoured by the centre right, the last two years have seen support by the left grow from just 12 per cent to 40 per cent.
And no wonder. According to separatists’ own calculations, low skilled venetians earning just 1,200 euros a month would immediately see a 500 euro a month pay hike if Veneto was responsible for its own finances, while pensioners would see their pensions almost double from 570 euros to 1,000 euros a month.
All taxes, income and corporate, would be pegged to a flat 20 per cent rate with a £15,000 minimum threshold.
Italy’s economy, by contrast, contracted by 1.8 per cent last year, and unemployment remains above 12 per cent as record numbers of businesses go to the wall.
Failure to curb public spending has left continental Europe’s third largest economy recently face a “recovery downgrade” by the EU.
We need to keep our taxes, to free our economy from this Italian prison and secure our future
It is too early to say how Wednesday’s pledge by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of an £8.5bn tax cut to stimulate the economy will play, with unions already insisting the benefits go directly to workers and not corporations.
More than 300,000 voters have already contacted the independence movement to pledge support, but it will need a quorum of fifty per cent of voters for any plebiscite to count.
“We know we have overwhelming support, but it will all depend on the turnout,” said Mr Busato, a softly spoken former engineer who now stands as a candidate to lead the new republic.
“It’s not like Scotland. Rome has tried to ignore what is happening for fear of unintentionally inflaming support, so we have worked very hard through the regions to contact every voter.”
He claimed that success would force the rest of Italy to “make the difficult decisions it needs to take.”
“People ask how we can abandon the poorer regions for the south, but we see this as a stabilizing measure on an Italian bureaucracy that is out of control,” he said.
“What Italy needs is real rationalization, but this will never happen as long as regions like Veneto are bailing it out.
“Carrying on would be no different than giving heroine to a drug addict who doesn’t want to end his addiction.”
– The Express