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Italy’s anti-immigrant, anti-euro Northern League party is seizing on the Scottish vote for independence as an opportunity to “relaunch the battle” for secession of the north of Italy, planning a mass rally and stepping up its confrontation with Rome over its push for a referendum in the wealthy Veneto region.
The Northern League was founded 30 years ago calling for the recreation of a mythical Celtic state in northern Italy, known as Padania.
Its national influence is much weaker than when the party was a key partner in the successive governments of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. However, it retains a stronghold in Italy’s richest regions in the north, with populist campaigning centred on immigrant bashing and pledges to protect its economic wealth from Italy’s “thieving” south.
Matteo Salvini, the 41-year-old leader of the Northern League, told the Financial Times that Scotland’s vote on September 18 on whether to sever its 307-year union with England was “a great boost for all movements for autonomy and identity in Europe, from Catalonia, to Flemish, to the Bretons and the Padanians”.
“The fact the vote is taking place at all is a positive thing for us in Padania. We are going relaunch the battle for independence,” he said, adding he intended to use Scotland’s vote as leverage to step up pressure on the government of Matteo Renzi to allow the northern region of Veneto its own referendum on independence.
“I’m convinced we are also going to be one of the protagonists in a historic period of change which is going to see the economic and geographic borders of Europe rewritten over the next few years,” he added.
The Northern League took 6.15 per cent of the national vote in the European elections in May, a tiny fraction of the 40 per cent won by prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party but more than expected after a campaign focused on bashing the euro and immigrant. The League won nearly 12 per cent of the vote in the north west of Italy and 10 per cent of the vote in the north east.
Its stronghold is the Veneto, one of the most wealthy areas in Europe, where the League typically takes at least a third of the votes. The governor, Luca Zaia, is a vocal League member who frequently rails against European banks, Brussels, immigrants and national institutions.
Mr Salvini said the League planned a mass rally of “militants” at the town of Cittadella, a stronghold of the League in the Veneto three days after the Scottish vote.
“In 20 years of our battle for federalism the Italian state has never given us a chance to vote in a referendum. We maintain that Italy as an idea needs a re-evaluation, that is several different countries, but with the Renzi government we are seeing even more power returning to the central state,” he said.
At dawn on April 2 this year, Italy’s antiterrorist squad raided a shed in a field outside Verona and found a homemade armoured vehicle equipped with a small cannon. Police arrested 24 people, including eight in Verona, in Veneto, under antiterrorist laws and accused them of sedition and possession of armed weapons.
Among the allegations from the authorities was that L’Alleanza, or the Alliance group, which is also pushing for independence for Veneto, planned to use the homemade tank for the “liberation” of Venice’s popular St Mark’s Square in the run-up to the European elections.
“Extremists? It was a ridiculous situation. Those people didn’t hurt anyone. If there’s anything wrong with our extremists it is that they are too moderate, that they are too peaceful,” Mr Salvini said.