Saturday

8th May 2021

Does Italian regionalism actually work?

  • Rome: reforms, some 20 years ago, changed Italy's constitution (Photo: Nick Kenrick)

Italy is not a federal republic like Germany, nor is it a unitary, centralised republic like Portugal or Ireland.

Less regionalised than Spain but more than France, its institutional set-up is based on a complex patchwork of regions, autonomous regions, and autonomous provinces.

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"Italy reminds me of the Holy Roman Empire," a businessman working between Milan and Munich told EUobserver. And he found it incredible that local regulations varying from region to region overlap with Italian (and European) laws on the same subject.

Some Italian regions function quite well: for example Friuli-Venezia Giulia in northeast Italy, Emilia-Romagna in central Italy, or the overwhelmingly German-speaking Alto Adige/Südtirol.

But according to many experts consulted by EUobserver, overall, the performance of Italian regionalism is lacklustre. And the Covid-19 emergency has made things worse.

Italy's healthcare system is regionally based, and if the implementation of the vaccination plan is slow, the regions are at least in part to blame.

As prime minister Mario Draghi stated at the Chamber of Deputies on March 24, "unfortunately, important regional differences persist, which are very difficult to accept. While some regions follow the instructions of the ministry of health, others neglect their elders in favour of groups that claim priority, probably on the basis of some bargaining power".

The regions' role originates from a reform carried out between 1999 and 2001 that significantly modified title five of the Italian constitution, increasing their power.

Gloria Marchetti, professor of constitutional law at the University of Milan, considers the reform overall positive.

"It entailed a major enhancement of the regions' and local authorities' role. The legislative powers of the regions have been strengthened by delimiting the areas of State competence, by providing for many important areas of shared competence between the State and the regions, and by introducing so-called residual regional legislative powers", he said.

But Gaetano Azzariti, professor of constitutional law at La Sapienza University in Rome, said that "faced with the stress-test of the Covid-19 pandemic, the reform of title five of the constitution has demonstrated all its shortcomings. After that reform, each region created its own health-care system, which proved to be dangerous and I would say contrary to the logic of the Constitution".

The universal right to health, valid for everyone throughout the country, is enshrined in article 32 of the Italian constitution.

And according to Andrea Patroni Griffi, professor of public law institutions at the University of Campania Luigi Vanvitelli, while the reform of title five was the most far-reaching change to the constitution ever approved in Italy, the debate on it was very limited.

"The new title v has enabled the rise of a regional political class, in a confused when not a competitive framework in terms of the allocation of competences and resources", he said.

The reform has weakened the government's control over the decisions of regions and local authorities.

Observers have often remarked that Italian regions behave like small independent states, and the then minister of regional affairs Francesco Boccia admitted it in May 2020.

"We need a more vigorous and streamlined central power," he said.

Over the years, Italy's notorious national bureaucracy has been flanked by the regional ones.

In the view of Nadia Urbinati, professor of political theory at Columbia University, the reform of title five has generated "twenty centralist regional administrations. New high-paying power structures have been created at the administration level, with an extraordinary waste of public money. Costs and bureaucracies have increased, while in many regions services have deteriorated".

Problems in north and south

Although northern Italy is usually more efficient than southern Italy, some governors of northern regions (as well as of southern ones) have had serious trouble with the law.

And regionalism has certainly not weakened the mafias' grip on the country.

According to Vincenzo Musacchio, professor of criminal law, associated with the Rutgers Institute on Anti-Corruption Studies in Newark, "regions are fertile ground for mafias, especially in healthcare matters, since three-quarters of the regional budget concerns healthcare. The phenomenon of organised crime infiltration in local authorities has taken on very alarming proportions in recent years and has been underestimated for too long".

The business community is also concerned.

"The world is global, but regional bureaucracies in Italy remind one of the Middle Ages," Musacchio said.

Meanwhile, for Antonio Varrone, a director of the branch of the general confederation of Italian industry in southern Italy's region of Molise, regionalism was a real hindrance to Italy's economic growth and needed to be reviewed.

"If we are facing such an emergency from a healthcare point of view, and this critical situation from an economic point of view, a great deal of responsibility lies with the current institutional set-up", he said.

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