Bossi plots birth in Venice for his Padanian realm

Rome cannot ignore 'independence' stunt by separatists, writes Anne Hanley
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The Independent Online
Rome - On Sunday, Umberto Bossi, the Northern League leader, and his followers gather in Venice to declare the independence of Padania. Padanian flags will be waved, Padanian passports brandished and Padanian banknotes bearing Mr Bossi's portrait exchanged. The Padanian Greenshirt "army" will be out in force to keep the peace.

The eight Northern regions which are Italy's wealthiest and most highly industrialised will "break away" from the rest of the country, burning television licences along the banks of the River Po in a three-day secessionist extravaganza leading up to the finale in Venice. "An historic day," said Roberto Maroni, the Padania Liberation Committee chief and League Number Two. "A day which will change Italy as we know it. Oh, and thank you to the Press for blowing this thing up: if they hadn't given us so much coverage, no one would be talking about Padania at all."

This latest provocation from Mr Bossi received little media attention. From a man whose fiery, interminable speeches are peppered with sexual innuendo and the kind of insults and threats which would get him arrested in many countries, a mere promise to take his beloved North out of Italy rated a few column inches.

But by hammering on through the summer recess, providing papers with much-needed copy, Mr Bossi has turned his scheme into something more worrying. After years of writing him off as the joker of the Italian political world, that same political world is taking him seriously. Even the phlegmatic President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro is showing concern. "We have to think about our history in order not to commit the same mistakes or bring about the same tragedies," he said in a letter marking the new school year.

But with the independence day machine gathering speed, his warnings will fall on deaf ears. In Merlara, west of Venice, League leaders paraded last week and enthusiasm was overwhelming. "There just comes a point where you think enough is enough and we've reached it," said Michele Menaretto, secretary of the Padua cell.

According to League-think, a tax system as Byzantine as it is onerous bleeds the wealth of the North to pour it into a black hole in Rome and thence to a grasping, corrupt South which for decades has lived on state hand-outs. This portrait is not so far from the truth.

But feelings which led 10 per cent of voters to opt for the League in spring are too emotionally charged to be followed up by much solid reasoning. Mr Bossi's determination to introduce separate currencies has provoked mirth from economists, who say the Northern one would shoot up, making Italian products unexportable, while the South, with a depressed currency, would become the Mediterranean's Taiwan.

And Mr Bossi's recent letter to the European Commission inquiring how Padania, one of Europe's richest areas, should go about joining monetary union without the ball and chain of the South, received such a prompt, albeit dismissive, answer that it was suspected the grey Eurocrats had fallen about laughing before trampling each other in the rush to reply.

Yet it is to Europe that the League will look after Sunday's independence declaration, said Mr Maroni, who has a grand vision of his party's changing more than just the make-up of Italy. "We have to give this 'Mamma', who has rejected her child, some time, five years or so," he said. "The whole of the EU is watching us, we are an historic occurrence; we're the first. But others will follow. The EU will eventually become a union of regions, and not a union of outdated nation- states."

Until then, it is with the Italian state the League has to reckon and the Italian state has no intention of allowing its economic power-house to slip from its grasp. Not that the Northern League expects it to. In a rare show of realism, most leghisti will admit that the day after the "historic" rally, Italy will carry on much as before.

Even so, there will be important changes, Mr Maroni said. "On Sunday, we'll give a great show of force; after that, our negotiations with Rome will be on a completely different footing. Nothing will be the same as before." On that last point at least, Mr Maroni may be right. If, as expected, 1 million people flock to the banks of the Po for three days of celebrations, Rome will have to sit up and listen, and bend to the demands for greater federalism which the League launched before upping its stakes to secession. The Po outing may speed up constitutional reform to defuse a phenomenon which, in the future, could become a serious threat to Italian unity.