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Federations Magazine Article
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Italy takes the slow boat to federalism

Over the last 10 years, Italy has been in the
process of federalizing. Delays along the way have
led to a federal constitutional framework around a
centralist political culture. At the same time, the rich
regions of the North are demanding more autonomy,
while the poorer regions of the South are
worried that further federalization will widen the economic gap
between the two parts of the country.
From the time of Italian unification in 1871 until 1948, Italy
had a unitary form of government. It was only with the
Republican Constitution of 1948 that an innovative, but also feeble,
experiment with regionalization was conducted.
After the Second World War, not all Italian regions were
treated equally. From the very beginning, Italian regionalism
was characterized by its asymmetrical design, as a matter of
constitutional law and in terms of implementing the powers
that were transferred to the regions. Despite
constitutional provisions for one standard
regional design for the whole country, only
five special or autonomous regions were
established. All five were in the periphery:
three in the Alpine region in the north, with
historic minority groups, Aosta Valley,
Trentino-South Tyrol, Friuli-Venezia Giulia;
and the two main islands of Sicily and
Sardinia. There were international obligations imposed by the
peace treaty between Italy and the Allied Powers after the
Second World War and fears about a possible secession of these
peripheral areas. Each of the five regions has a special statute,
which is essentially a basic law that has full constitutional
The third way
As an innovative experiment, the regionalization of the whole
country mapped out a “third way” between a federal and a unitary
system, to avoid too great an asymmetry between these
areas and the rest of the territory. However, this two-track
regional design, set out in the Constitution of 1948, was not fully
developed until the 1970s. By 1972, the ordinary
regions were given devolved legislative
powers. Eight of these 15 ordinary regions are
in the North: Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna,
Liguria, Lombardy, Marches, Tuscany,
Veneto and Umbria. Two are considered to
be divided between North and South: Lazio
(Latium) and Abruzzo. The other five are in
the South: Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria,
Campania and Molise. Since the early 1970s, a permanent
increase in the regional powers gradually narrowed the gap
between the so-called ordinary and special regions. The path
has been neither straightforward nor coherent, influenced by
shifting political priorities and the Constitutional Court. As
there is still no constitutionally guaranteed institutional representation
of regional interests at the central level, extending
federalism essentially meant challenging national laws in the
Constitutional Court. These conflicts and Constitutional Court
rulings emphasizing co-operation and consultation led to the
gradual empowerment of the regional level and to a system that
can be described as co-operative regionalism.
A series of important reforms of the public administration
and the system of local self-government were adopted between
Italy takes the
slow boat to
ital y
Federalization is popular with the
North but resisted by the South
Francesco Palermo is director of the Institute for Studies on
Federalism and Regionalism at the European Academy of Bolzano/
Bozen and associate professor of comparative constitutional law at
the Faculty of Law of the University of Verona in Italy.
Jens Woelk is a senior researcher at the Institute for Studies on
Federalism and Regionalism at the European Academy of Bolzano/
Bozen and lecturer and researcher in comparative constitutional law
at the Faculty of Law of the University of Trento in Italy.
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
In Italy, the regions of the North start just above Rome. Differences
between North and South led to a movement for federalism that is
stronger in the North.
federations /shannon elliot
Six years after the passage of the constitutional amendments,
the reform is far from complete. Although some amendments
came into effect immediately, such as the new distribution of
legislative powers, the new lists were found to be incomplete
and to contain many overlaps, giving rise to an enormous
increase in the number of controversies. The Constitutional
Court had to face the fundamental task of redefining the competencies.
Frequently, this provided a rationale for expanding
the role of the national government through the assumption of
jurisdiction over cross-cutting issues instead of over narrow
jurisdictional matters, and the interpretation of the national
government as guardian of the national interest.
A second group of reform provisions required further
detailed legislation, especially in the field of fiscal federalism.
Unfortunately, the centre-right coalition government under
then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, elected immediately
after the approval, did not show any interest in implementing
the reform inherited from the previous government. Thus, only
two statutes of implementation were adopted, in 2003 and
2005, and the issue of financial relations is still unresolved.
In addition, Berlusconi’s government – including the
right-wing Northern League, which sought more radical results
– presented its own, more far-reaching constitutional counterreform.
This proposal affecting 53 articles of the whole
Constitution was finally adopted by the centre-right coalition’s
majority in Parliament in November 2005. However, its entry
into force was prevented when 61 per cent of voters opposed it
in a referendum in June 2006. This referendum took place just
after Berlusconi’s government lost the general elections. The
new government under Prime Minister Romano Prodi has
since assumed the initiative and is attempting to complete the
implementation of the 2001 reform.
However, even the regions were not that diligent in capitalizing
on the new opportunities for reform, and the process of
passing new basic laws has been very slow.
Flaws in the system
Further constitutional reform seems unlikely at this point. The
next steps in Italy’s federalization process likely will be the
implementation of fiscal federalism provisions and perhaps
some shifts in competencies. For example, there is wide agreement
that energy must be a national competence, not a shared
At the moment, Italy can best be described as a devolutionary
asymmetric federal system in the making. The term
devolutionary is appropriate because powers have been transferred
from the national government to the regions;
asymmetric reflects that there are two types of regions and the
implementation of federalism differs from region to region;
and “federalism in the making” specifies that even after the
reform of 2001, the term “federal” or “federalism” does not
appear in the Constitution. Federalism in Italy will come about
in a step-by-step basis, starting with the approval of the new
basic law by each region, and by each region taking full advantage
of the opportunities to move forward with the reform.
Italy’s constitutional framework certainly allows for a federal
form of governance. It is now up to the politicians to assume
their responsibilities.
the late 1980s and the late 1990s. These reforms encouraged the
more active regions to start developing their potential for selfgovernment.
Political demands for more self-government
became an absolute priority for the rich and industrialized
northern regions – demands which were also echoed by the
government in Rome. Initially, the devolution of powers was
primarily seen as a means for reducing expenditures by the
national government. Pressures by a federalist, and on occasion
secessionist, political party, the Northern League, made
federal reform a political issue requiring constitutional reform.
Steps toward federalism
In 1999 and 2001, two constitutional amendments were
approved which considerably increased the powers of the ordinary
regions. The first reform introduced the direct election of
regional presidents. It also strengthened the regions’ constitutional
autonomy, as the basic regional laws are now to be
enacted by the ordinary regions themselves in a special procedure.
The second reform of 2001 completely reshaped the
constitutional provisions concerning relations between the
national government and the regions, following decisions by
the Constitutional Court.
The reform declares all component units of the republic to
be equal – the national government, regions, provinces and
municipalities. While this sounds unusual for a federal system,
it does express the concept of functional spheres rather than
hierarchical levels of government. The two-track asymmetry –
involving ordinary and autonomous regions – is confirmed,
but further differentiation is now possible upon the request of
single ordinary regions. Most importantly, the reform drastically
changes the distribution of legislative and administrative
powers between the national government and the regions.
The Constitution now lists all legislative powers of the
national government as well as the fields of concurrent legislation
in Article 117. Now, the residual powers lie with the regions.
Administrative powers are no longer connected with legislative
ones, but rather are distributed in a flexible manner under
Article 118. The new provision for fiscal federalism allows for
partial financial autonomy of subnational entities in Article 119.
As well, all regions must establish a consultative body for the
representation of local authorities within their territories.
Until the early 1990s there was an unwritten pact between
North and South allowing Italy to devalue the Lira as a means
of maintaining its competitive footing with other European
countries. The economically depressed and dependent South,
for its part, used public expenditure as a means of stimulating
consumption. Then there were pressures to reduce the public
debt and overall public expenditure in order for Italy to enter
the European Monetary Union. The collapse of the North-
South pact undermined the equilibrium between northern
and southern regions on regional expenditure and tax policy.
Corruption scandals in the early 1990s led to the demise of the
old order with the dissolution of the Christian Democratic
Party and the Socialist Party. This collapse of the old political
order helped to increase the pace of these changes and a budgetary
crisis made the introduction of a number of vital
structural reforms even more urgent.
Slow implementation