Inspired by independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia, the once mighty Republic of Venice is holding a referendum next week in a first step of a bid to break free from Italy.
Activists in the wealthy region of Veneto – home to the floating city – claim 68 per cent of residents are fed up handing taxes to Rome and yearn for the days when Venetian doges ran an independent maritime empire.
“We want our Republic of Venice back,” said organiser Gianluca Busato. “We are not nostalgic because it is the Italian state that represents 20th-century nationalism and backwardness,” he added.
“Do you want Veneto to become an independent and sovereign federal republic?” is the question five million Veneto natives will ponder in the online referendum that Mr Busato said was backed by nine out of ten local councils.
The referendum, which starts tomorrow and will yield a result next Friday, will have no binding effect, since Italy only recognises national referendums, but organisers believe it will act as a call-to-arms.
“We expect a campaign of non-payment of taxes to Rome to kick off,” said Mr Busato, who added that the referendum would also vote in a council of experts to prepare the legal and judicial groundwork for turning Veneto back into a state.
Formed in 697AD, the Venetian Republic grew to become a sea-going superpower in the Renaissance, dominating Mediterranean trade routes with a fleet of 3,300 ships and 36,000 sailors, while a doge, backed by a council of ten, ran the city of Venice.
The city state went into gradual decline after Atlantic trades routes opened, before it was occupied by Napoleon in 1797 and later inserted into the newly unified Italy in 1866. But the region’s thousands of small manufacturers have kept the region far richer than the south of Italy.
“If we go independent we will be about the seventh richest European state in terms of GDP per capita,” said Mr Busato, a 44-year-old electronics engineer.
Organisers of the referendum are looking to Scotland’s independence movement for inspiration and invited activists, including SNP councillor Ian Renwick, to Veneto to speak last year.
A local business group has also met with pro-independence group Business for Scotland.
Venetian independence is also backed by the region’s governor Luca Zaia, who said the referendum was just one initiative among many pushing for statehood, including a recent petition organised by his right-wing Northern League party which gathered 100,000 signatures in one day.
“There is a galaxy of independence initiatives right now, it is backed right across the social spectrum, it is as if the movement is warming up on the touchline,” he told The Scotsman.
Mr Zaia added: “Veneto hands over €21 billion (£17.5bn) in tax revenue to Rome every year,” he said. “And while businesses here like [Ray Ban manufacturer] Luxottica and Benetton have international links, we pay 68.5 per cent of our earnings in taxes compared to the EU average of about 46 per cent. That makes our business people heroes.”
Mr Zaia said Scotland was “a model” for Veneto. “It is the example for everyone to learn from, even though I think the objectives have been watered down somewhat compared to Catalonia.”