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Intergovernmental Relations and Identity Politics in Italy

Part of the Comparative Territorial Politics book series (COMPTPOL)


The chapter examines the system of intergovernmental relations (IGR) in Italy and explores its links with the protection of identities and minority rights. The institutions that connect regions and the centre are manifold and tend to reflect the asymmetrical nature of the Italian regional design within the framework of a decentralising state. As in most countries that have decentralised progressively, the second chamber of parliament performs no role in terms of linking the regions with the centre, despite a generic reference to this effect in the text of the Constitution. Consequently, IGRs have mainly been developed through cooperation among the executives rather than by means of the legislature. Originally developed as informal channels of cooperation, the attendant practices have been progressively institutionalised, creating a complex system of executive conferences that brings together the national, regional and, in some cases, local governments. The asymmetrical nature of the Italian regional system is reflected as well in the different institutions established to bring together each of the five special regions and the national government, namely the joint committees for the implementation of the special autonomy statutes of each so-called special region. The role, importance, and performance of each of these committees vary considerably. It is not by chance that those special regions whose autonomy is rooted in the protection of different identities (notably the rights of linguistic minorities) have made wider use than others of such instruments. The chapter demonstrates the existing link between IGR, identity politics, and asymmetrical constitutional design, a link that makes Italy a highly interesting case study for the comparative analysis of these phenomena.

This chapter was developed and written collaboratively. Francesco Palermo is chiefly responsible for sections 1 and 2 and Nicolò P. Alessi, for sections 3 and 4.

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  1. 1.

    Geomorphological features vary significantly. Mountains make up 100% of the territory of Trentino-South Tyrol, but only 1.4% of Apulia’s; about 50% of Veneto, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna are flat in area, whereas this is so for only 23.2% of the national territory. By contrast, hills cover wide areas of the country (41.65% of it).

  2. 2.

    Lombardy is the most populated region (>10 million inhabitants), while Aosta Valley is the smallest (<130,000). In terms of area size, Sicily is the largest region (about 26.000 km2), Lombardy, the fourth largest (<24.000 km2), and Aosta Valley, the smallest (<3.300 km2). Population density also varies, with the ratio of inhabitants to square kilometres ranging from 427 (Campania) to 39 (Aosta Valley).

  3. 3.

    In terms of economic diversity, the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (nominal income) amounts on average to EUR 36,800 in the North-West and to only EUR 19,200 in the South. By contrast, the autonomous province of Bolzano (South Tyrol) is well above the average, with EU 48,100, while Calabria is last, with EU 17,300. Unemployment amounts on average to 6.1% in the North and 17.6% in the South. Exceptions to this pattern are represented by Basilicata in the South, with a rate of 10.8%, and Liguria in the North, with 9.6%. At opposite ends of the territorial ranking are South Tyrol, with 2.9%, and Calabria with 21.6%. This information reflects data for 2019, i.e. before the pandemic (see ISTAT n.d.a, n.d.b).

  4. 4.

    See for criticism made by the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

  5. 5.

    As Choudry (2008, pp. 4–5) notes, ‘a divided society is not merely a society which is ethnically, linguistically, religiously, or culturally diverse … The age of the ethnoculturally homogeneous state, if there ever was one, is long over. Rather, what marks a divided society is that these differences are politically salient—that is, they are persistent markers of political identity and bases for political mobilization’.

  6. 6.

    The two autonomous provinces are comparable to special regions in terms of their catalogues of competences; the region Trentino-South Tyrol has no significant powers left.

  7. 7.

    The Christian Democratic party (DC) was the ruling and the strongest party until the 1990s. After giving its endorsement in the constitutional assembly to the establishment of ordinary regions, the DC refused to implement the provisions, fearing that the creation of these regions would strengthen the Communist Party, which was dominant in some important regions such as Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. Conversely, the Communist Party was initially opposed to the institution of ordinary regions; later, given the impossibility of obtaining positions in the central government—due to a conventio ad excludendum among the other parties in constitutional court—the establishment of the regions presented an opportunity for it to prove its governing skills as well as gain significant political influence at the central level.

  8. 8.

    After 15 years of coalition with right-wing parties, the DC entered into an agreement with social-democratic parties in the late 1960s. The establishment of regions was part of the agreement and was intended in part to ease tensions with the Communist Party.

  9. 9.

    See Bin (1996); after the 2001 amendment, this trend became even stronger (see below).

  10. 10.

    The Northern League was formed in 1991 as an umbrella organisation representing regionalist, and even secessionist, movements that had been active in the north of Italy since the 1970s; after the election of Matteo Salvini as its leader in 2013, the Lega Nord underwent a profound ideological and organisational transformation, turning into a national party and changing its priorities to focus on national issues. Consequently, in 2018, the former Northern League changed its name to ‘League’. See Albertazzi et al. (2018).

  11. 11.

    According to the constitutional court, formally it cannot be considered a constitution ‘because Italy is not a federal state’ (Ruling No. 365/2007, on terminological differences between regional and national organs; see Ruling No. 202/2002). However, the court does not explain what, in its view, the differences are between a federal state and a regionalised state like Italy.

  12. 12.

    This is evident in the fact that none of the special statutes has been amended significantly since its adoption. The sole exception is Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol, the special statute of which was modified extensively in 1972 after a complex agreement with the German-speaking minority in Alto Adige/South Tyrol. The amendment resulted in the abolition in fact (but not formally) of the region and the transfer of all legislative and administrative powers to the two autonomous provinces of Trento and Bolzano/Bozen, which therefore enjoy a status comparable to that of the special regions. Conversely, the statutes of ordinary regions, all adopted in the 1970s, were all replaced by new ones between 2002 and 2012.

  13. 13.

    For detail, see Buglione (2003) and Palermo et al. (2013).

  14. 14.

    In 2019, the GDP per capita (nominal income) of South Tyrol, Aosta Valley, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia was above the national average (EUR 48,100, EUR 38,800 and EUR 31,900, respectively, with national average GDP per capita at EUR 29,700), whereas Sardinia and Sicily were among the regions with the lowest GDP per capita (EUR 21,300 and EUR 17,900, respectively). See ISTAT (n.d.c).

  15. 15.

    Also known as ‘social capital’ and ‘civicness’; in this regard, see Putnam (1993).

  16. 16.

    The three regions signed preliminary agreements in 2018; after the 2018 national elections, negotiations resumed, this time with the new government. After some stop-and-go, the government drafted a general bill on regional differentiation, deliberation on which was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  17. 17.

    Campania, Liguria, Lazio, Marche, Piedmont, Tuscany, and Umbria.

  18. 18.

    For example, approving motions, resolutions or recommendations; this is the case with Basilicata, Calabria, and Apulia.

  19. 19.

    Abruzzo and Molise.

  20. 20.

    See Constitutional Court, Ruling No. 37 /2021 dealing with Aosta Valley’s regional Law on the management of the Covid-19 crisis in the regional territory; for further details on this, see below Section No. 3.4.

  21. 21.

    For an overview of the controversial issues and the constitutional court’s approach to the division of powers between state and regions, see Bin (2006).

  22. 22.

    See in particular Judgments No. 303/2003 and 14/2004.

  23. 23.

    See judgment No. 37/2021.

  24. 24.

    On the federal spirit, see Burgess (2012).

  25. 25.

    The reasons for this design lie in the Italian Constituent Assembly’s sharply contrasting opinions on the nature, role, and composition of the Senate, let alone—at least in the initial phase of the debates—on the question of whether or not it should exist. That political context led to the compromise represented by the current second chamber. See Fusaro (n.d.).

  26. 26.

    Until 1963, the Senate formally had a different term of office to that of the Chamber of the Deputies (six years instead of five), although this was largely bypassed right from the outset through the use of early dissolution; since 1963, the two chambers have had the same term of office. Furthermore, it must be noticed that Constitutional Law no. 1/2021 modified art. 58 of the Constitution, repealing the provision that foresaw different age requirements for active electorate previously in place (18 for the Chamber and 25 for the Senate). Starting from the next elections, the Senate will be composed of 200 members (instead of 315), while the Chamber of 400 (instead of 630), as provided for by Constitutional Law no. 1/2020, which amended artt. no. 56, 57, and 59 of the Constitution.

  27. 27.

    Today’s national electoral law provides for a mix of uninominal and multi-member regional constituencies, which, however, does not assure any strong connection with territory. The senators indeed continue to be more accountable to party leaders than regional voters (Palermo & Wilson, 2013, p. 19). This is due to the link between the candidate in the uninominal constituency and the closed party lists in the multi-member one: voting for the uninominal candidate implies voting as well for the closed list or lists that support him or her. Two exceptions are Aosta Valley and Trentino-South Tyrol. The former is an uninominal parliamentary constituency for both the Chamber and Senate, its aim being to ensure territorial representation for the small region (and its French-speaking minority); the latter has a larger number of uninominal constituencies than the other regions, to assure representation for national minorities; both have specific rules that favour candidates from regional parties.

  28. 28.

    Article 11 of Constitutional Law No. 3/2001.

  29. 29.

    Russell & Sandford (2002) show that numerous factors militate against reform of the upper chamber. In Italy’s case, Senate reform has been either neglected for political reasons or embedded in larger constitutional amendments that marginalised the Senate; moreover, both the interests of senators themselves and the voice of public opinion – as expressed by the popular vote of 2016 – play an important role in preventing reform of the Senate.

  30. 30.

    For a broad, if not recent, overview of these dynamics, see Russell (2001).

  31. 31.

    As Watts (1987, 3 ff) points out, this term was developed by Canadian political scientists with regard to Canadian federalism, where the role of intergovernmental bodies arose as a consequence of the weakness of the upper chamber. Palermo & Kössler (2017, p. 253) note that it was not by chance that this system emerged in Canada: it was relatively easy to secure the parliamentary implementation of executive bargains, given the country’s parliamentary institutions.

  32. 32.

    As far as cooperation among legislatures is concerned, a horizontal institution of regional legislatures exists; known as the Conference of Regional Councils’ Presidents, it is formally a private association. It is a helpful source of soft-law guidelines for coordinating the activities of the regional councils; it is also consulted, as its ‘executive counterpart’ (see below), in the ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ phases of EU policy-making in Italy.

  33. 33.

    Article 5 of the Constitution declares: ‘The Republic is one and indivisible. It recognises and promotes local autonomies, and implements the fullest measure of administrative decentralisation in those services which depend on the State. The Republic adapts the principles and methods of its legislation to the requirements of autonomy and decentralisation’; see constitutional court, Judgments No. 49/1958, 219/1984 and 358/1985, which explicitly formulate the principle of loyal cooperation.

  34. 34.

    Article 120, paragraph 2, of the Constitution, which requires the state to respect the principle of loyal cooperation when it is allowed to substitute the other layers of government in their activities (e.g. in case of inertia of regional and local governments, or for compelling reasons related to the protection of the unity and security of the state).

  35. 35.

    constitutional court, Judgement No. 31/2006.

  36. 36.

    For example, the principle can require mutual information, advice or agreement; a complex and contradictory model has been devised by the constitutional court (especially in Rulings No. 303/2003 and 6/2004) in which the state unilaterally attracts one region’s legislative competence for the satisfaction of unitary interests in derogation from the ordinary vertical division of powers. In this case, the pre-emption is justified only if the implementation of state law is agreed upon both within the state-region conference and by virtue of an agreement with the single region; on this topic, see Arban (2015).

  37. 37.

    Law No. 59/1997 and Implementing Decree No. 281/1997.

  38. 38.

    Or another member of the government delegated by him or her.

  39. 39.

    Or the Minister of Regional Affairs delegated by the Prime Minister, who can also invite other ministers, depending on the matter dealt with in the conference’s meeting.

  40. 40.

    This applies to the definition of the criteria for the allocation of state financial aids to regions, some appointment procedures, and other cases explicitly provided for by state laws (article 2, paragraph 2, Implementing Decree No. 281/1997).

  41. 41.

    To this end, the state-regions conference holds two dedicated meetings a year.

  42. 42.

    CINSEDO (Interregional Centre of Studies and Documentation), established in1981 with the aim of conducting research into regional functions and activities.

  43. 43.

    For example, in the ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ phases of EU policy-making processes (Law No. 234/2012).

  44. 44.

    The Prime Minister (or the Minister of Regional Affairs), and the ministers of Economy and Finance, Budget and Economic Development, Public Works, and Health.

  45. 45.

    Fourteen mayors appointed by the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI) and six Presidents of Province appointed by the Union of Italian Provinces (UPI).

  46. 46.

    They are the ANCI, UPI, and UNCEM (National Union of Mountain Municipalities and Mountain Entities).

  47. 47.

    Aosta Valley was not entitled to use these instruments, at least formally, until 1993.

  48. 48.

    For South Tyrol, a special commission of six members is appointed within the regional body. Such commission of six members gives equal representation to the language groups, given the delicate group relations in South Tyrol. See Palermo (2007).

  49. 49.

    Constitutional Court, Judgment No. 37/1989.

  50. 50.

    These kinds of provisions are usually referred to as ‘atypical’ or ‘super-primary’ legislation. The same principle applies to laws adopting the directives of the EU and those adopting agreements between the state and religious communities. See Gabriele (1998).

  51. 51.

    See constitutional court, Judgments No. 20/1956, 22/1961, 151/1972, 180/1980, 237/1983, 212/1984 and 160/1985.

  52. 52.

    See Judgment No. 213/1998.

  53. 53.

    In regard to financial relations with the state, they are generally ruled by enactment decrees and special laws of constitutional court. The latter require the consent of both the state and the special autonomy, and hence the principle of parity clearly comes to the fore here as well.

  54. 54.

    For example, in South Tyrol, practical rules on issues such as the ethnic quota system, the use of language, the school system, and the census of language groups are found in enactment decrees. For a complete list of the enactment decrees adopted since 1948, see

  55. 55.

    The constitutional court has adopted a rather generous interpretation of what can fall under the scope of the implementation, even though enactment decrees cannot intervene in issues that have little to do with the provisions of the autonomy statute. See constitutional court, Rulings No. 34/1974 136/1969 and 108/1971.

  56. 56.

    As confirmed by the consolidated jurisprudence of the constitutional court; see, for example, Rulings No. 20/1956, 212/1984 and 341/2001.

  57. 57.

    This was the case, for example, with the enactment decree on the administrative court for South Tyrol, which provides for the appointment of judges on entirely political grounds, contrary to the general rule in terms of which selection is based on merit.

  58. 58.

    Law No. 42/2009, especially article 27. See Parolari and Valdesalici (2012).

  59. 59.

    In some cases, a grey zone can be identified in identity politics. This is most notably the case with Sardinia, which is legally (Law 482/1999) a minority territory (Sardinians are recognised as a linguistic minority); here, regional identity is strong and rooted, and regional political parties have always existed, including some independentist movements. However, in the process of designing Sardinia’s relations with the national government, this strong diversity never came fully into play. See Mola et al. (2017).

  60. 60.

    Only in one case this happened in Sardinia, when the joint committee approved an important enactment decree (No. 16/2016) that transferred to the region the power to legislate on the protection of linguistic minorities in the region. This made it possible for the region to subsequently adopt a comprehensive law on linguistic, cultural, and education rights of the ‘Sardinian people’ (regional Law No. 22/2018).

  61. 61.

    See Putnam (1993); the latter work has antecedents at both international and national level. Among them are Banfield (1958) and Almond & Verba (1963); see also Almagisti (2015).

  62. 62.

    Among them Putnam (1993); however, such historical determinism is one of the most criticised aspects of his work.

  63. 63.

    On the role of a decentralised party system, see Lijphart (1999).

  64. 64.

    Members of the committee for South Tyrol are usually not only prominent political figures but almost always—irrespective of whether appointed by the state or the province—South Tyroleans.

  65. 65.

    That is, with regard to the number of enactment decrees approved.

  66. 66.

    Indeed, in the few instances when the central government needed the support of Aosta Valley’s parliamentarians, the region succeeded in obtaining political agreements that made it possible to enact bylaws rapidly. This was the case with the national reform of the educational system in 2015 (Law No. 107/2015), which was endorsed by Aosta Valley’s senator by virtue of a political agreement (formalised in a state-region agreement 10 days after the law was passed) that assured the immediate approval of a successive bylaw specifying how the reform was to be applied in the region (Legislative Decree No. 44/2016).

  67. 67.

    The underlying message was that Rome’s ‘repressive’ Covid-response did not fit the ‘character’ of South Tyrol because the latter, being ‘German’, is inherently ‘more disciplined’ and, as such, better suited to a response based more on ‘individual responsibility’ than on prohibition.

  68. 68.

    Provincial Law No. 4/2020. The law had initially been challenged, but, after the mentioned negotiations, the challenge was withdrawn and the central government allowed all regions to lift the measures autonomously, provided that they respected the national legislative framework. This possibility was drastically limited in autumn 2020, when the so-called second wave of the pandemic was approaching.

  69. 69.

    Judgment No. 37/2021, mentioned above.

  70. 70.

    The three preliminary agreements of 2018 provided for the establishment of bilateral commissions modelled on the joint committees for the special regions—whose identical reproduction is not free from criticism, given the different constitutional status of special and differentiated regions—which were aimed at implementing the differentiated status of the regions.

  71. 71.

    In politics (Baldini & Baldi, 2013), but so too, for instance, in the civil service (Cassese & Torchia, 1993).


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Alessi, N.P., Palermo, F. (2022). Intergovernmental Relations and Identity Politics in Italy. In: Fessha, Y.T., Kössler, K., Palermo, F. (eds) Intergovernmental Relations in Divided Societies. Comparative Territorial Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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