Why a referendum on autonomy? Because Italian regionalism, so far, has been disappointing

October 16, 2017
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The following text is taken from the book “Per autonomie responsabili. Proposte per l’Italia e l’Europa” (“Responsible Self-Governments. Proposals for Italy and Europe”), edited by Gian Candido De Martin and Francesco Merloni for LUISS University Press.

The current limitations and defects of Italian regionalism date in part to its origins, and in part to the existing prevailing political and legislative guidelines.

The original limitations are well-known. These are due first and foremost to the delay with which the constitutional design of the ordinary regional order began to be implemented, therefore promoting a recreation and consolidation of a traditional centralist state system. Furthermore, the dualism between Regions with a special statute and ordinary Regions, with the latter mostly characterized by an uncertain sense of self-identification of their local communities, with the consequent relative artificiality of their territorial dimensions. Regions with ordinary statute were designed by the state lawmaker with features other than those made available to Regions with a special statute, especially when it came to financial grounds. Moreover, there have been widespread tendencies towards a parochial particularism, which often lead local authorities, the municipalities, to be more afraid of regional “neo-centralism” than the traditional control by a central state. Finally, there is a strongly centralized arrangement in the political forces system and the same representations of interests.

Regionalist slogans in the Seventies invoked “Regions for state reform”; “Regions for programming”; “Regions for participation”. Now, new government models have been perhaps been observed more and more, in some instances, at state level than at regional level. The idea of a decentralized economic programming has disappeared along with the idea itself of an economic programming as it was thought of at that time. The participating institutions themselves have often shown greater vitality at national level (one thinks of the referendum) than at regional level.


The 2001 Reform of Title V of Italian Constitution Was Left Out in the Cold

The reform of Title V that was decided upon in 2001 was more the result of an attempt to pursue on the grounds of consensus a new political force (the Northern League) that at the time was carrying autonomous or straight-up secessionist instances; that same reforme really wasn’t the outcome of a committed and coherent institutional policy design. That is why that reform has remained from the beginning, and to this day, largely unrealized, left out in the cold.

State legislation has in no way developed according to the model of the framework law laying down those principles. The project for a true “fiscal federalism” has in fact been abandoned; the role of a financial co-ordination by the State has been increasingly exercised not only in narrowing the Regions’ autonomy when it comes to their revenue, but also in the sense of a painstaking control and conditioning of regional spending not only in overall terms but also in relation to individual spending destinations.

The distribution of legislative competences drawn up in the Constitution with the 2001 reform is marred, as it is well known, by some blatant mistakes in both directions. Namely, by the attribution to a competing jurisdiction of clearly nationally relevant subjects such as national energy distribution, and by the exclusive attribution to the State of matters which inevitably interfere with regional competences, such as the protection of the environment. Instead of correcting these mistakes, there has been an accentuated conflict during constitutional proceedings (owing it to the lack of pre-existing conflict-resolution tools such as the government’s deferral of laws to the various regional councils); and the state lawmakers have overused their “across-the-board” expertises, often resulting in an unnatural limitation of typical fields where regional autonomy was in place (think of the regional administrative organization, which is increasingly subject to state norms in the name of the jurisdiction of the “civil rule”). Much part of those fields has relied on the use of a form of “case-law” flexibility clauses such as the “attraction of subsidiarity” or loyal cooperation.

In addition to this, there is an overall weakness of the political classes and the administrative apparatus of the Regions in bringing about innovative and convincing legislative and administrative decisions. Therefore, even to the public sphere the Regions have often appeared to be centers for waste or immorality in the handling of public resources.

Some Suggestions to Reverse the Course: A Framework Law, Parliamentary Regulations…

In order to aim at the revitalization of a healthy autonomous practice, some guidelines pertaining to both method and merit can be traced for the future.

Methodically speaking – perhaps more importantly, if put into perspective – lawmakers should be promoting the adjustment to the “principles” and “methods” of legislation to the “requirements of autonomy and decentralization”, which Article 5 of Constitution imposes, first and foremost at state level. That way, they would be revitalizing the largely abandoned constitutional model of a “framework law”.

On legislative procedures grounds, one hopes that finally the integration of the Bicameral Committe for Regional Affairs with local and regional authorities laid by the 2001 reform (and never implemented to this day) gets to be explored, as it could also contribute to a better organization, through appropriate additions and amendments of parliamentary rules, to the work of the two Chambers on autonomy issues.

On tthis matter, the underlying theme continues to be the striving of a balance between the necessity for a national and European uniformity and the need for respect and development of legitimate differences.

Regarding the allocation of competences, apart from the individual corrections that can usefully carried out in the 2001 scheme, on the one hand,   the theme of special autonomy should be resumed, which would have to be attributed to the permanent reasons for the specialty, by overcoming the differences in treatment in regards to ordinary autonomies, especially on a financial level (which are not justified); on the other hand, the system of differentiated autonomies provided by article 116, third subparagraph of the Constitution, should be developed. The issues about improving the cooperation instruments, both at national and regional level, should be addressed when implementing the principles of subsidiarity and loyal cooperation, particularly with regard to the programming and execution of large infrastructures.

In turn, the system of local authorities should be rethought in the light of those same principles. It’s about time to overcome the dualism between ordinary Regions and special statute Regions, even with regard to local government, by attributing to all Regions, and not just to special ones as it is today, an overall jurisdiction, even of a competing kind, in order to regulate local authorities. The organization of large area bodies, after the sudden “preview” of a constitutional reform that is yet to happen, with the law no. 56 of 2014 (the so-called “Delrio Law”) should be revised thoroughly, restoring the constitutional role of the Provinces – at least in the larger Regions – redefining their tasks and their departments, and allowing the full development of the new form of local government, ie. the Metropolitan City. On this subject, the overall revising of the territorial size of the large area bodies could also trigger a reflection and a possible revision of the territorial identities of the Regions themselves. (…)

What Needs to Change in Terms of Region-managed Money and Budgets

There is the crucial aspect of the Regions and local authorities’ financial regulations to be considered. An actual, robust autonomous system can not disregard the allocation of autonomy to its territories on the issue of revenue, and especially taxes. This, obviously, must be part of an overall taxation and expenditure control system coordinated and traced by the State. Autonomy does not mean a chance for decentralized bodies to impose unlimited taxes or to increase their spending in an unlimited way.

On the contrary, local authorities must know precisely what autonomy they have with regard to the levy, must take decisions on the collection and on the expenditure fed with that same collection within those spaces, in compliance with the tasks and purposes assigned to it, and must answer to the citizens on the levy imposed and on the use of the withdrawn resources.

The principles of balancing local budgets and debt limits expressly set out in article 119 of the Italian constitution, as modified in 2012, are not a matter of discussion either (if anything, in this regard it can be observed that the principles of autonomy are not easily harmonized with the assumption that the debts of each local authority are subject to the condition that – as per the final paragraph of article 119 – the budgetary balance is respected “for all bodies of each Region”). This framework of “fiscal federalism” is based on the constitutional system of the territorial bodies: but today, after being carried out by law no. 42 of 2009, it can be said to have been abandoned and contradicted on a daily basis.