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Milan And Venice Head To Polls In Push For Greater Autonomy From Italy


Catalonia's not the only region in Europe trying to redefine its relationship with the traditional state. The Italian regions around Venice and Milan vote tomorrow on autonomy. Like Catalonia, the area is an economic power. Many people there don't like sending billions in taxes to the central government. Christopher Livesay reports from one town heading to the polls.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Bassano del Grappa is a town in Veneto, a prosperous region that's voting on autonomy from Italy in a referendum. But there are no violent clashes with police here - no protesters in handcuffs, only townspeople scurrying through the market.

VALERIA DEVERO: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: Valeria Devero runs a street stand selling purses, but one bag she gives away for free. It bears a medieval lion, the ancient symbol of the Republic of Venice that predated the modern state of Italy here. A caption admonishes citizens to vote yes in the referendum.

DEVERO: (Through interpreter) We're all focused on promoting it, especially the shopkeepers at the open-air market where the common people come, all people from Veneto.

LIVESAY: If it passes, Veneto wouldn't break away and form its own state. The referendum and a tandem vote in the neighboring Lombardy region only authorize them to negotiate greater fiscal autonomy for their 16 million residents. Lombardy and Veneto calculate that, together, they send some 70 billion euros more in taxes to Rome than they get in return.

MARA BIZZOTTO: (Speaking Veneto).

LIVESAY: Mara Bizzotto hopes to change that. She's a member of the European Parliament, passing out flyers with the Northern League. For decades, the party campaigned to secede from the rest of the country.

BIZZOTTO: (Speaking Veneto).

LIVESAY: "Today," she says, "regional autonomy is the next best thing." She says it not in Italian but in the local Veneto dialect.

BIZZOTTO: (Through interpreter) Keep in mind that 80 percent of us speak the Veneto language. The Republic of Venice has a millennium-long history. It has its own historical identity. Maybe it's been brushed aside, but we feel attached to this territory.

LIVESAY: Analysts point out such referendums are part of a Europe-wide trend towards isolationism, not to be underestimated. Just look at Brexit, when Britain voted to leave the European Union because it felt the EU government in far away Brussels had grown out of touch. That same sentiment persists across Europe within regional separatist movements, says Patrizio Nissirio, a senior editor with Italy's ANSA news agency.

PATRIZIO NISSIRIO: I think, given the fears of, you know, European citizens for issues like immigration, the loss of jobs that are going to Asia, the idea that the government that is closer to a local community can better deal with these issues rather than a faraway national government is certainly something that all European politicians should be concerned about.

LIVESAY: Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who's trying to make a comeback, has dismissed the vote as an attempt to stir up the right wing before national elections early next year. But in Bassano del Grappa, even Riccardo Poletto, the mayor from his own center-left Democratic Party, supports autonomy and says it won't weaken Italy or the European Union.

RICCARDO POLETTO: (Through interpreter) No, absolutely not. If you want a strong coalition, it takes a strong region to make a strong state and strong Europe. Autonomy is an instrument of cohesion, not separation.

LIVESAY: Polling data predict a landslide victory for the yes vote. If it passes, negotiators must decide how much autonomy the region will have and precisely what the word cohesion means in Europe today.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Bassano del Grappa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Livesay