Italy: 150th anniversary highlights nation's divisions

BOLZANO, in the foothills of the Tyrolean Alps became Italian by a twist of history, when Italy and Austria made a pact after the upheaval of the First World War.

With its German-speaking majority and reticent elegance, it still feels closer to Vienna than to Rome, so it came as no surprise when the president of the autonomous province said he would not join in the nationwide festivities celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy.

"We were taken away from Austria against our will," said the president, Luis Durnwalder. "I respect those people who want to celebrate, but I see no reason to celebrate."

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Durnwalder, who helped Bolzano negotiate its autonomy from Rome and its hefty state subsidies, was not the only sceptic over the four-day festivities, which end today.

Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, the most powerful party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right coalition, called the celebrations "useless, and a bit rhetorical," and some of his party members have refused to stand for the national anthem. The leading Italian industrialists' organisation said it would be foolish to lose a day of work to a national holiday amid the economic crisis.

Beyond the political theatre, the polemics reflect a profound reality: as Italy prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary it is more fractured than ever before - politically, geographically and economically.

The country has always been more a patchwork of regions with strong local identities rather than a strong nation-state. And politically, two decades after the end of the Cold War, Italy is more divided regionally than ideologically, not least because Berlusconi - weakened but not undone by persistent sex scandals - has held his coalition together in large part by granting concessions to the Northern League.

The party, which controls the Veneto and Lombardy regions, both economic powerhouses, is pushing for "fiscal federalism", a plan to give regions more power over taxation.

Many believe that the Northern League - known at the top for its savvy, pragmatic politicians and at the grass roots level for its fierce anti-immigrant stance - is a more troubling kind of separatist threat than Durnwalder and his party, because it manages to criticise the centralised state while being a pillar of the governing coalition.

John Foot, a professor of Italian history at University College, London, said there is a growing rejection, among a minority of Italians, of "the present nation-state, the way it's been organised".

"I think that rejection could become more and more radical if radical forms of federalism are pushed through," he said."There would be an institutional crisis - not a civil war, but a Belgium situation where it's impossible to form a government, where regions become so strong and are mini-countries. In some ways, that's already happened."

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But others see these kinds of divisions as so intrinsic to the Italian project - a big, unruly family, bound by language and largely by religion, forever bickering but never quite dissolving - that they pose no threat.

"What's happening to Belgium won't ever happen to Italy," said Giuliano Amato, a former prime minister who is the anniversary committee chairman. "We need to stay together in order to keep arguing," he added wryly. "If not, how can we keep arguing?"

In 1911, Italy celebrated the 50th anniversary of unification by inaugurating the hulking Victor Emmanuel Monument in central Rome. In 1961, for the 100th anniversary, Italy was riding high in an economic boom.

This year, the mood has been different. Italy is facing economic difficulties, political scandals, brain drain, and once again problems with Libya, its largest supplier of natural gas.

Last week's festivities revealed ironies, not least that today the main champions of the Italian nation-state are not the right but the left and the Catholic Church - which excommunicated the kings of Italy for allowing the nascent republic to remove the church's temporal powers. Yet some see Italy, divided along regional lines, as a microcosm of the difficulties of the larger European project, a place where local identities run up against one another, and often thrive, within a messy collective.

"As goes Italy, so goes Europe," said Francesco Palermo, an expert on federalism and a professor in Bolzano.