Padania: new European country, or just an excuse for a party?

Two nations are being born - the first is pure folklore, the second is the Italy that works and makes money

Andrew Gumbel
Wednesday 11 September 1996 23:02 BST

You are all invited to join in three days of fun and celebration this weekend. The northern third of Italy - or rather, the Republic of Padania - is about to declare its independence.

There will be speeches and political rallies featuring the separatists' very own Boy Scouts in their green shirts, not to mention a solemn "baptism" in which a sacred phial will be filled with river water and carried to Padania's self-proclaimed capital, Venice.

You can obtain a Padanian identity card or some "Bank of the North" bank- notes. There will even be a ritual burning of Italian television licences.

But above all there will be music and dancing, and, to cap it all, a giant beach party in Chioggia with lashings ofspaghetti alle vongole.

It will be a strange birth of a nation. For a start, Padania is not a nation at all. It does not even have borders, let alone a separate political structure. The Padanians are not an ethnic group, and there is certainly no groundswell among the northern Italians in favour of secession.

The whole issue has been invented and inflated by the most relentlessly nonconformist of Italy's political parties, the Northern League, and scorned by pretty much everyone else. What is going on? Is this an independence movement, or have the Marx Brothers come to town?

The truth is, two distinct Padanias are being born this weekend. The first is pure folklore, a fictional creation that owes more to the outlandish sense of humour of the leader of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi, than to political reality.

This is the Padania whose main exports are suits of medieval chainmail, souvenir cigarette butts discarded by the gravel-throated party leader himself, cheap jokes at the expense of southerners, and all those bogus banknotes.

Nobody is ever going to vote for this Padania, but the point is that it provokes reactions.

To northerners living in some fog-shrouded industrial suburb in the Po valley, it restores a sense of fun to a life of tedious, if affluent, provincialism. To southerners and the high authorities of state in Rome, this Padania may seem destabilising and irresponsible, but still they cannot stop talking about it. It is a media smash-hit.

The second Padania is far more serious, and the one that could have an effect on all our lives. It is the Italy that works, that makes money, that commands international respect, the Italy that is fed up to the back teeth with the inefficiencies of a central government that demands ever higher taxes while delivering less and less in return. This Padania acts European, feels European, and doesn't see why it shouldn't be part of Maastricht and the single currency from the word go.

In a Europe of regions rather than nations, this Padania would be right up there at the top of the pile. If the single European currency is a success, it would be sorely tempted to introduce it even if the rest of Italy has to soldier on with the lira.

Such sentiments sound like treason to the rest of the country. Italy's postwar order was founded on principles of unity and pluralism, principles that, in the late 1940s, banished the twin spectres of Fascism and civil war and are generally considered the cornerstone of the country's democratic health.

The uncomfortable truth for Italy is that the new Europe will force a rethink of such received ideas sooner or later. If northern businesses and banks are happy to work with the Euro as a parallel currency, how is the government going to stop them?

Obviously, it makes no sense for Padania to break away if the rest of Italy goes down the plughole, and the latent anti-southern hostility in the League's rhetoric needs to be watched.

But Mr Bossi's message - while not always palatable - cannot be ignored.

As an appeal for greater regionalism, it applies to Catalonia and Scotland just as much as it does to northern Italy. This weekend's jamboree on the Po is just the beginning.

Leading article, page 15

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