Italy Has Become Two Countries

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Written by Nick Ottens

Italy has long been split between an economically vibrant north and a stagnant south. Now that divide has become political.

In March, the center-right, led by Matteo Salvini’s Nationalist League, won the election in most northern regions. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement placed first across the south, including on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. These two parties now rule Italy in a coalition government.

The Coalition

The League once sought independence for the region north of Rome. Salvini has transformed it into an Italian version of the National Front. Polls give the party up to 25 percent support against just 11-13 percent for its erstwhile coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi.

Left- and right-wing populists have long found fertile ground in the south, where people resent northern domination. The Five Star Movement is the latest to promise that it will succeed in revitalizing the region where others have failed.

Ideally, their coalition will heal geographical divisions and complete the unification of Italy that started a century and a half ago.

More likely, it will succumb to infighting among inexperienced politicians who share little more than a common enemy: the EU.

Deep Roots

GDP per capita in the north of Italy, at €32-33,000, is 10-14 percent above the European average and comparable to incomes in France. GDP per capita in the south, at €18,000, is only 60 percent of the European average and barely above the level in Greece (€16,000).

This disparity has deep roots.

Before unification in 1861, northern Italy consisted of various competing republics and principalities which were integrated in the European economic and political system. The south, which had been unified half a century earlier in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, lay dormant and distant. It resisted national unification on northern terms—and lost.

The imposition of the northern Italian language and northern laws was unpopular. The new central government in Rome made only half-hearted attempts to turn the two parts of the country into a cultural and political whole.

Promises

To this day, northerners look down on the south. The region remains more agricultural. It has more corruption and more organized crime. One in three Italians live in the south, but the region produces only a quarter of the country’s GDP.

It also bears the brunt of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, which explains the newfound popularity of the once anti-southern League there. The party takes a hard line against immigration.

The Five Star polled well promising a €780 basic monthly income for poor families and the reversal of pension cut, commitments that are impossible to meet without breaking EU budget rules.

It is anyway hard to imagine the party, which has virtually no governing experience, tackling long-term problems that have confounded more experienced politicians for decades.

Should the Five Star and League fail to make good on their promises, it can only fuel the cycle of disappointment and discontent that has characterized relations between the two halves of Italy for so long.

About the author: Nick Ottens is the founder and editor of atlanticsentinel.com, a transatlantic opinion website.