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A Small Step Toward Federalism
by Andrea Catalano


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Coat of Arms of the Sicilian Autonomous RegionTo geographers and historians, it's no surprise to hear that Sicily is part of Italy. It hasn't always been so. To King Roger II and his descendant Frederick II, it was a sovereign kingdom ruled from Palermo. By 1860, it was part of a sovereign state ruled from Naples. Only in that year did Sicily --or any other "Italian" region-- become part of a nation called "Italy." During his brief reign in 1946, King Umberto II of Italy was "encouraged" by the Allied Government to sign a decree making Sicily a semi-autonomous region of the "Kingdom of Italy" his great grandfather, Vittorio Emanuele II had constructed, and that Benito Mussolini's wars had helped to destroy. Umberto was deposed and exiled by a popular referendum shortly after he signed the decree granting Sicily a degree of political autonomy which eventually led to the growth of a notoriously corrupt leadership class. The Italian Republic followed his example by establishing semi-autonomous region after semi-autonomous region: Aosta, Sardinia, Trentino (South Tirol). Italians were beginning to question the cause --and effect-- of Italian unification. In the 1990s, the federalist movement grew, with the Northern League of Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont emerging to challenge Rome's "central government." Cultural regionalism began to recognize each region's history, customs, language and cuisine --something reflected abroad when one dines in a Florentine or Sicilian restaurant rather than an "Italian" one.

It isn't often that Sicilian politicians, ranging from Neo-Fascists to Ex-Communists and everything in-between, meet in a neutral forum to remind voters (and each other) that each is, in fact, a Sicilian with a vested interest in Sicily. It's even more unusual that Sicily's most important elected administrators scramble to endorse, or even hijack, a new political movement potentially powerful enough to deal them a mortal blow at the election polls. Especially on a Sunday.

But that's precisely what happened on February 11th at the Tiffany Theatre in Palermo, as a thousand people gathered to hear the proposals of Nuova Sicilia (New Sicily), a new federalist movement that embraces several smaller "Sicilianist" ones. Career politicians infamous for corruption, inefficiency, nepotism and clientalism spoke --albeit only indirectly-- of abolishing these longstanding ills. Those made rich by a half-century of financial support from Italy's central government and the European Commission spoke of financial independence and economic development for Sicily. Balding men and grey-haired women over 50 spoke of the participation of younger people.

Despite such hypocrisies, or at least contradictions, Nuova Sicilia actually stands a chance. Its leaders, unlike many scholars who challenged Italy's unification history and nationalist policies in the past, are predominantly from the political Right. They're conservatives (whatever that means in today's Italy). But despite their political rhetoric, their perspective of Sicilian history and culture is essentially sound. Theirs is a view of Sicily as part of the Mediterranean World and the European Community, not just part of Italy. The island's cosmopolitan medieval monarchs would have approved.

But it's difficult to imagine King Roger II of Sicily begging his northern European cousins for money. Amidst all the talk of political and economic autonomy, nobody mentioned renouncing the millions of euros squandered by the European Commission on hundreds of costly projects destined not to yield tangible results so much as to make a few Sicilians rich. (One cannot help but wonder whether a more independent Sicilian government wouldn't be just a more direct channel to obtain monies from Brussels, or yet another excuse for misappropriating them.) Nor did anybody speak about the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, the infamous national program, funded with the initial help of the World Bank and even the United States, meant to bolster Sicily's post-war economic development, that resulted in unfinished roads (like the Palermo-Messina motorway) and incomplete energy plants, but luxurious villas for politicians, administrators, economic "experts" and Mafiosi. While Sicily is the largest and most populated of Italy's twenty regions, one out of four Sicilian adults remains unemployed. This is not to say that all of Nuova Sicilia's supporters are opportunists, and it's clear that a few of the politicos who've attached themselves to the coalition want more than sinecures for themselves and their friends, paid for in euros rather than lire. How Nuova Sicilia achieves its lofty goals is another matter, but cooperation in a united effort is a good place to start.

However, there's more than federalism at work here. To see so many conservative parties united under the same banner reflects the Italian Republic's very slow evolution into a nation of two or three political parties rather than dozens.

What really distinguishes Nuova Sicilia from other movements of this kind is its mainstream appeal --the fact that supporting it doesn't brand a member a revolutionary or separatist. Nuova Sicilia is certainly a small, if somewhat partisan, step on the long road toward Italian federalism. Its leaders may not resemble Roger II, but they don't look too much like Giuseppe Garibaldi, either. The path to a federalist Italy is a difficult one, full of political pitfalls. But then, Rome wasn't built in a day.

About the Author: Agrigento native Andrea Catalano has written for various Italian periodicals.

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© 2001 Andrea Catalano