Italy's separatists tread softly toward autonomy
As nervous investors retreat from Catalonia, afraid the wealthy region may secede from Spain, another European region whose politicians once campaigned for independence is looking to attract some of them -- by talking of autonomy, not secession.
The Italian region of Lombardy, the country's industrial engine and home to its financial capital Milan, is holding a referendum on Oct. 22 for more autonomy, an outcome its once-proudly secessionist leader hopes will lure more investment.
That could come at the expense of Catalonia, which is a rival to Lombardy in the race to attract employers fleeing another painful European divorce, Brexit. The two regions are competing to host Europe's drugs regulator which must leave the U.K. and find a new home inside the European Union.
"We are not Catalonia," said Lombardy President Roberto Maroni, overlooking Milan from his glass-walled office on the 36th floor of the region's recently built headquarters.
"We remain inside the Italian nation with more autonomy while Catalonia wants to become the 29th state of the European Union. We, no. Not for now."
He speaks of Catalonia as a competitor in some respects but says he is not deliberately courting its firms. "We are not cheering because firms are fleeing Catalonia. We will see what happens but I haven't had any requests yet from Catalan firms."
Maroni is a leading member of Lega Nord, which began in the 1990s to campaign for an independent state of Padania, stretching across Italy's north, roughly following the Po river from around Lombardy in the west to Venice in the east.
Lega Nord no longer actively campaigns for secession but as the ruling party in Lombardy and in the Veneto region around Venice, it is holding referendums in both for greater autonomy, including a better financial deal from the central government.
A “yes” vote would not be binding on Rome, but Maroni said it would give him a strong mandate to negotiate a better deal.
"It's obvious that the more negotiating power I have, the more money I can manage to bring home," he said.
Rome says the referendum is unnecessary, though permitted under Italy's constitution, which allows regions to open talks for more autonomy. Italy's ruling Democratic Party is also neutral on the issue, though at least one of the party's mayors in Lombardy is calling for a "yes" vote.
Like Catalonia, Lombardy makes up a fifth of the national economy and complains that the centre is draining its finances.
But unlike Catalonia, where hundreds of firms have shifted headquarters to other regions of Spain since an Oct. 1 independence referendum there, Lombardy's boss is taking a softer line and using his autonomy push as an investment pitch.