Bossi wants currency for North

Italy's Northern League chief believes the nation-state is finished, writes Anne Hanley in Rome
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The Independent Online
Umberto Bossi is, he says, an optimist at heart, and his views on the world in general bear this out. For the charismatic, cantankerous leader of the Northern League, the pendulum of history is swinging back gratifyingly toward greater spirituality. His views on his own country however are not so rosy: as he sees it, a deeply divided Italy is hovering on the brink of the abyss.

"If Italy continues to compete as a single unit in a world of economic globalisation it's going to sink like a stone," he told the Independent. "It will only take two years, perhaps three. By then the productive system of Padania will have been annihilated."

Padania, in League-talk, is the swathe of wealthy, industrialised regions across Italy's North. It is there, the League is never slow to remind us, that most of the country's gross national product is generated, and from there that the money comes to feed what Mr Bossi and his followers have long seen as a money-grabbing capital and a cash-guzzling South which keeps its head above water by massive state hand-outs. The Northern League emerged in so-called Padania in the early 1980s, born from this resentment which Mr Bossi has heated up to boiling point in a battle for northern autonomy.

Autonomy, however, has made little progress, and so Mr Bossi has raised the stakes: in speeches which have infuriated President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, and the Catholic Church he has started waving the banner of secession.

"Secession comes along of its own accord," said Mr Bossi. "It is not politically-led: it comes from outside, from the people. The economic situation determines the conditions. The country weighs up the contradictions of the system and moves to change it. There's a stand-off. What we've got here is a guided stand-off."

A crisis situation created by "leaders who have proved quite incapable of handling the economy" is bringing matters to a head, argues Mr Bossi. Unemployment in the South is running at more than 20 per cent but the state can no longer afford to stave off the problems this could lead to with special funds.

"The binary economy has now become two quite separate economies. The old centralised administration can no longer compensate for these two completely different economies with emergency and welfare payments to the South. It's like throwing money into a black hole. Taking the economy as a single unit will force Italy out of any international competition. It will bring nothing but disaster."

Desperate times demand desperate measures and Mr Bossi has no shortage of these. Topping his hit list is monetary dis-union. The currencies of Padania and the South must be separated.

"The South has to create an economy for itself, this means low labour costs and the power to devalue its currency as much as it wants. It could become the Taiwan of the Mediterranean, but not while Italy has just one currency."

Mr Bossi fears that the South will keep Italy as a whole from meeting the criteria for European monetary union.

And that, in his view, would be a shame. Because an Italy excluded from the EU family would be an Italy condemned to nation-statehood.

"Everywhere I go in the world, I see that the battle is no longer between right and left, but between centralism and federalism, between the centre and the independence," he noted. "This means that the nation-state mechanism has been superseded and we are going towards new forms of aggregation. There are no borders any more, only currencies."

That Padania must move forward to prosperous independence under the distant umbrella of a Peoples' Europe is the sine qua non of Mr Bossi's philosophy, a philosophy which made the League the largest party in Lombardy and the Veneto in last month's general elections. How this transformation is to be brought about is not so clear.

"We need to sit down around a negotiating table," said Mr Bossi. Yet he is sceptical about the chances of talk getting Italy anywhere: "Take the new government. It's not a left-wing government, it's a coven of ex-Communists and Christian Democrats, the people responsible for the mess the country's in today. We can talk with them, but what good is that going to do?"

With more than a touch of the populist idealism which has made him into a near-sacred figure in the North, Mr Bossi believes that the inevitable will happen spontaneously. "Ninety per cent of northerners want a separate currency," he maintained, pouring scorn on any idea of the centre using force to keep the country united.

"Small powers fight, not big ones. Big ones say that things have to be done like this or like that, and that becomes dogma. Padania is a giant with a population of 32 million people. It's so strong that at the first sign of trouble it would blow not just the South but the whole of Africa sky high. You can't afford to annoy a giant like that. What we are aiming for is a confederation of independent entities and it will come. It's just a question of time."