Regionalism in Catalonia and Northern Italy: destructive phenomena of a united Europe?

Regionalism in Catalonia and Northern Italy: destructive phenomena of a united Europe?

When it comes to regionalist sentiments within the EU, the current debate is dominated by the case of Catalonia. However, the Catalan movement is not the only one which lacks acceptance by both the nation state and the European Union. On the one hand, the Catalan nationalist movement does not pose a threat to the foundations of the EU. On the other hand, it is the first political affair directly related to the idealist concept of Europe of the Regions. One of the reasons behind this claim could also be be explained by the comparison of this case with another secessionist movement which unifies the regions of Northern Italy and is politically represented by the Lega Nord. These specifics of these movements are analyzed by Katarína Stratená.*

In both cases, the arguments for a greater autonomy for Catalonia and Northern Italy are quite similar. In economic terms, both these regions are more advanced than other parts of respectively Spain and Italy. As a result, they transfer large amounts of taxes to the poorer poor regions in order to level economic imbalances in different parts of Spain and Italy. These policies are controlled by central governments, and this nurtures the demands for greater independence. The economic incentives also mark the line where the similarity between these two movements ends.

The ever growing autonomous ambitions did not emerge out of nowhere. They are the result of a gradual weakening of nation state induced by the intensifying European integration and globalization processes. A positive correlation between market liberalization and secessionism at the global level was outlined in the study by Alesina et al.[1] As for the EU, its subsidiarity principle enshrined in the EU’s founding treaties as well as the creation of European Committee of the Regions (1994), have increased the confidence of the economically advanced regions to strive for even wider autonomy.

There are various theoretical approaches supporting the sub-national units and their aspirations for autonomy, including federalism, devolution and their various modes. One of the key approaches can be found within the “Europe of the Regions” concept. It favors the idea of ‘stateless’ Europe comprised of only regional, or sub-national units based on the idea “small is beautiful”. The framework of the “Europe of the Regions” concept implies that all the needs and interests of local units are being addressed and maintained through an individual approach and respect to the units’ uniqueness. However, the same local units may influence broader policies and larger political powers up to the European level.[2] Indeed, “Europe of the Regions” has become a very attractive concept for regionalist political parties that sought for a greater sub-national political influence being backed by the European Union. The idea of achieving a federation at the European level has caused increasing pro-European attitudes among regional policy-makers and was further promoted among the citizens of those sub-national units. These developments were analyzed by Eve Hepburn (2008) who emphasized the rise of support for “Europe of the Regions” among regionalist parties (in Scotland, Bavaria or Sardinia) in the beginning of the 1990s.[3]

The Catalan and Northern Italian cases within the EU framework did not differ from the cases of most other regions. Both Catalan parties and the Lega Nord have adopted strictly pro-European policies. However, the approach towards the promotion of the “Europe of the Regions” concept in both cases has been fundamentally different. While the agenda of the Catalan parties retained its pro-European character, the ideas pursued by the Lega Nord took an opposite direction. Both regions face different levels of politicization, when it concerns the respective movements. In Catalonia, the politicization bears predominantly a civil character and appeals to the dual European and Catalan citizenship featuring openness and multiculturalism. The regionalism of Northern Italy is determined by the political agenda of the Lega Nord which uses populist rhetoric, and resorts to anti-immigrant and anti-southern sentiments. Moreover, the Catalan attempt to proclaim independence was predominantly a region-wide movement, while in the case of Northern Italy it is strictly linked with one political party and enjoys limited public representation.

The Catalan movement has been largely consistent with its own political course and attitudes towards the EU and Spain. Pro-independent Together for Catalonia (JuntsxCat) and the Catalan European Democratic Party (PdeCAT) promote themselves as a pro-European, progressive and liberal/centre-left parties, committed to the promotion of human and civil rights and multiculturalism. Overall, the entire Catalonian independence movement can be marked as an autonomous regionalism, characterized by a strong ethno-cultural nationalism which also embraces elements of globalism and multiculturalism. Besides their strong cultural and historical identity, the Catalans perceive themselves as European citizens and emphasize the Europeanness of their movement. With its aspiration to have their self-determination affair and national interests to be included in the international agendas within the EU, Catalonia represents a prime example of local cosmopolitanism.[4]

The Northern Italian movement is a political issue, intertwined with the Lega Nord party. Since its establishment in 1991 until the recent times, its party agenda underwent several transitional points. While changing the attitudes towards the European Union, it was leaning from federalism towards secessionism and back. The Europeanism à la Lega Nord in the 1990s can best described by its proposals to exclude Italy’s southern regions from the Eurozone and to keep lira there, while the North was seen as capable to adopt Euro. While using the whole set of negative connotations about Italy’s South, the Lega Nord turned towards local chauvinism. For instance, laziness and backwardness were portrayed as the negative characteristic features of Italy’s South and used as a narrative to create an artificial ethnic group of northern Italians, residing in the territory of “Padania”.[5],[6] In early 2000s, the Lega North changed its rhetoric and moved towards Euroskepticism. This issue escalated during the 2014 European Parliament elections, when the party campaigned for leaving the Eurozone. Yet, the position of the Lega Nord towards the EU varied significantly. It ranged from a soft one (i.e. appeals to reform certain institutions of the EU) towards a hard-line Euroskepticism. The regionalist dimension of the party’s stance vanished in the light of the Italian elections that took place on 4 March 2018. To attract popular votes throughout the entire country, the Lega Nord changed its name to La Lega (English: The League) and discarded the focus on the northern parts of Italy. Populism of this party is embodied in its anti-immigrant attitudes that also dominated the entire electoral campaign in 2018. The results of the 2018 elections in Italy confirm that right-wing populist parties play a focal role in the current political settings of the country. On the one hand, it looks like the Padanian movement has been buried for the time being. On the other hand, nationalism in Italy moved from the sub-national to national level and adapted some extreme and anti-EU features.[7]

Many commentators and the EU representatives argue that the current autonomist movements are only selfish political motions of some few regional leaders who decided to stop subsiding poorer regions and use identity politics for achieving greater political power outside their nation-states. The main arguments reflecting the EU point of view are embedded in the principles of European solidarity and social cohesion, which are based on the redistribution of wealth from the developed regions to more disadvantaged parts of EU. However, this principle is crashing with neoliberalism which is one of the cornerstones of the European integration. Globalization and barrier-free economic market force regions to compete with each other in order to sustain their positions internationally. This situation can be observed not only in Northern Italy and Catalonia, but also in Flanders, Bavaria and Scotland which used to belong to most economically advanced regions in Europe.

Northern Italy and Catalonia promote their autonomous/secessionist goals very differently. The case of Northern Italy produces many questions about the stability of the entire country and the EU in general. The example of Catalonia reopens the question of reconsidering the “Europe of the Regions” concept. However, this concept seem to come to a halt for the time being. The EU did not respond to the aspirations of the regionalist movements with an expected fortitude and enthusiasm. On the contrary, a certain step back was demonstrated. According to the White Paper released by the European Commission in March 2017, it seems that the EU is withdrawing from a common agenda towards a “greater Europe” and is adopting a more careful approach which emphasizes individual characteristics of its Member States. By the slogans like “those who want more do more” or “doing less more efficiently”, the EU demonstrates a clear awareness about the current political and economic crisis, as well as the rise of Euroskepticism in its Member States.[8]

Catalonia and Italy represent just a fragment of the problems which the EU currently faces. Northern Italy’s regionalism has nowadays transformed into a countrywide nationalist anti-EU agenda led by La Lega. Together with the Five Star Movement (M5S) victory at the recent parliamentary elections, it brings a serious threat of possible dismantlement of the European Union. Catalonia, however, should not be put in the same basket because its aspirations for secession from Spain are the means for achieving national freedom within the EU without an appeal to right-wing nationalist slogans. The dismemberment of national state is not a new phenomenon. The characteristics of the Catalan movement are closer to the peaceful breakdown of Czechoslovakia than, for instance, to the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. Though being placed currently on the shelf, the concept of “Europe of the Regions” could represent a viable alternative to the challenges of this type.


[1] Alesina, A., E. Spolaore, and R. Wacziarg (1997). Economic Integration and Political Disintegration. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 6163,
[2] Borrás-Alomar, S., T. Christiansen, and A. Rodríguez-Pose (1994). Towards a `Europe of the Regions’? Visions and Reality from a Critical Perspective, Regional Politics and Policy 4(2): 1-27.
[3] Hepburn, E. (2008). The Rise and Fall of a ‘Europe of the Regions: The Territorial Strategies of Substate Political Parties 1979-2006,
[4] Murphy, B., C. Diaz-Varela, and S. Coluccello (2002). Transformation of the State in Western Europe: Regionalism in Catalonia and Northern Italy. In: P. Gubbins and M. Holt (eds.). Beyond Boundaries: Language and Identity in Contemporary Europe. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 73-90.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Giordano, B. (2000). Italian regionalism or ‘Padanian’ nationalism – the political project of the Lega Nord in Italian politics. Political Geography 19(4): 445-471.
[7] Italian elections 2018 – full results. The Guardian, 05/03/2018,
[8] European Commission (2017). White Paper on the Future of Europe. Reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025,

* Katarína Stratená holds a MA Political Science from the Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra and is currently pursuing a joint MA in European Studies at the Europa-Universität Flensburg and the University of Southern Denmark.

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