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Europe’s independence seekers: Scotland, Catalonia, and now … Venice

Activists in Venice and northeastern Italy want to restore independence to the region, which had been a republic for more than 1,000 years before falling to Napoleon in 1797.

It was once one of Europe’s richest trading powers, with its ships and merchants found across the Mediterranean. Venice‘s glory days have long since passed, but it is now rekindling its heritage and weighing a return to independence from Italy.

It may seem fanciful, but a burgeoning independence movement is confidently predicting that it will achieve nationhood before two of Europe’s other restive regions, Scotland and Catalonia.

It certainly has the historical pedigree – Venice was an independent republic for more than 1,000 years. That era came to an end in 1797 when it was invaded by Napoleon’s armies, who deposed the last doge, the traditional leader of the Venetian republic.

Now activists want to carve out a new country in northeastern Italy which would comprise Venice, the surrounding region of Veneto and parts of Lombardy, Trentino, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which borders Slovenia and Austria.

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The “Repubblica Veneta,” as it would be known, would encompass about 5 million people.

It would be based on the region’s historical differences from the rest of Italy, ranging from a distinct dialect to its close links with the Adriatic.

Parallels with Catalonia

As with Catalonia, the economic crisis that has swept across Europe has fueled Venetians’ resentment against central government control.

Like Catalonia, the region of Veneto, which encompasses the lagoon city, is a wealthy part of the country that has long bridled against the amount of money it pays in taxes to the national government.

Those taxes have only become heavier, as Rome seeks to tackle its 1.9 trillion euro national debt.

“The recession has badly hit small- and medium-sized businesses and the economic situation here is really desperate,” says Lodovico Pizzati, a former World Bank economist who heads the newly-formed Indipendenza Veneta political party.

“Of the 70 billion euros we pay in taxes to Rome, we get back about 50 billion euros, directly and indirectly. We are losing out on 20 billion euros a year – that’s a lot of money for five million people,” said Professor Pizzati.

Recent polls have shown a high level of support for Venetian independence. A survey last month by Il Gazzettino, a local newspaper, found that 70 percent of respondents were in favor of independence. A similar poll conducted by another Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, in September put the level of support at 80 percent.

In May, shortly after the movement was formed, activists presented a pro-independence petition with 20,000 signatures to Luca Zaia, the governor of the Veneto region.

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Mr. Zaia is also in favor of independence, although he is a member of a rival political movement, the Liga Veneta, which is allied with the Northern League, a party that has long called for devolution for the whole of northern Italy.

He said last week that Venetians are tired of being “slaves of Rome,” claiming that the central government had long ignored the region’s grievances.

Limited action

While surveys suggest strong support for independence, that has yet to translate into the sort of mass mobilization seen on the streets of Catalonia, where last month more than a million people took part in a rally demanding separation from the rest of Spain.

Indipendenza Veneta held a rally in the middle of Venice last weekend, calling for an urgent referendum to be held on the independence issue.

Organizers said 2,000 people turned up, but the police said the number was more like 500.

The crowd waved red and gold banners portraying the lion of St. Mark, a symbol of La Serenissima (the Most Serene) as the Venetian republic was once known.

Activists were ferried across the Grand Canal in gondolas to deliver a “declaration of independence” to the headquarters of the Veneto regional government.

Any move toward Venetian independence will be fiercely resisted by the rest of Italy, which only last year celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento, or unification of the country after centuries under foreign rule.

Venice, in fact, only joined Italy in 1866, five years after the unification of the rest of the country, and many Venetians claim the decision was made under duress.

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Any move by Rome to block calls for independence would be a violation of Venice’s right to self-determination, says Pizzati, who lectures in economics at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University.

“We’ve gained a lot of momentum from what is happening in Scotland and Catalonia and things are moving fast,” he added.