Social partners oppose government's devolution proposals

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Italy's centre right-right government has proposed a constitution reform, which will devolve further powers to the regions. The proposal, which came a step nearer to adoption when it was approved by the Senate in December 2002, would give regions exclusive legislative powers in areas such as education, healthcare and public safety. Both trade unions and employers' organisations are opposed to the reform.

Italy, unlike most other European states, become a united state relatively recently. Before unification, which was achieved in 1860, it was divided into many independent states. The territorial conquests of one of the strongest former Italian states, the Regno Piemontese, which incorporated the other states and imposed its legislative system, meant that the unification process was based on the centralised French 'Napoleonic' model. The forced annexation of states with predominantly agricultural-based economies led post-unification governments to pursue protectionist economic policies in favour of Northern industry. The result was a a wide North-South economic gap which still weighs heavily on the Italian economy.

The centralised structure of the state was slightly modified after the First World War when Italy created five 'regions with special autonomy' (Regioni a statuto speciale), and during the mid 1970s when it it divided the rest of the country into 'ordinary regions with limited autonomy' ('Regioni ordinarie'). This process did not prevent the central state from controlling tax policies and the allocation of funds for the activities of the regions.

In recent years, the centralised structure of the Italian state was questioned by the Lega Nord, a radical Northern political party which appealed to feelings of alienation from the national state, which are present in all parts of the population, and in the wake of anti-Southern sentiment present in some Northern areas. These groups are opposed to paying the costs resulting from the underdevelopment of the Southern regions.

In order to tackle the political problems arising from this situation, the former centre-left government which was in power until 2001 introduced a constitutional reform which provided for a federally-based state structure.

Constitutional reform

Constitutional law No. 3 of 18 October 2001 completely reformed the second part of Chapter V of the Italian Constitution, which governs the powers of regions, provinces and municipalities. The new Constitution allocates powers to the central state and the regions in a new way.

Regions now play a central role. The reforms allows regions - as well as the government - to legislate on certain subjects, with the exception of fundamental principles, which are reserved for the central state legislature. Regions are granted 'concurrent legislative powers' (podestà legislativa concorrente) with the central state on subjects such as: international and EU relations at regional level; the protection and safety of labour; education; scientific and technological research; support for innovation in productive sectors; health protection; and supplementary and 'integrative' pension schemes. The regions are granted total legislative powers in areas such as industry, tourism, commerce and vocational training,

The introduction of concurrent legislative powers triggered a conflict of competence between central and regional institutions. The concept of parallel legislative powers leaves rooms for discretion to both regional and national legislators, and this has resulted in a series of disputes between the institutions, which have made frequent recourse to the Constitutional Court (Corte costituzionale) in order to have their rights recognised. This conflict virtually paralysed the institutions and thus substantially blocked constitutional reform.

Faced with this situation, the minister in the current centre-right government responsible for institutional reforms and devolution, Umberto Bossi (the leader of the Lega Nord party), issued proposals for a new reform.

New reform

The constitutional bill put forward by Mr Bossi envisages further changes to the Constitution. The reform, as a constitutional change, requires the government's approval, which was granted in February 2002, and the approval of each chamber of parliament, plus support in a referendum. On 5 December 2002, the proposal was approved by the Senate.

Article 117 of Chapter V of the Constitution, according to the proposal, should be modified. Regions should be entrusted with the exclusive legislative competence, and no longer concurrent powers with the central state, on the following subjects:

  • healthcare assistance and organisation;
  • the organisation and management of education and training;
  • the definition of educational and training programmes of specific regional interest; and
  • local police forces.

Social partner reactions

The 2001 constitutional reform introduced by the centre-left government was accepted by the social partners, even though they had many concerns. The new devolution measures and more federalist structure proposed by Mr Bossi have, however, triggered very different reactions.

The trade unions are very concerned because they believe that the new legislative structure does not guarantee the equality of all Italian citizens' and workers' rights as regards labour legislation and some essential services such as healthcare, education and training. The unions fear a possible infringement of people's rights and protections and a possible differentiation of living and working conditions between the various regions. According to the unions, since Italy is already profoundly divided between North and South, if a 'local logic' prevails these differences are bound to become deeper.

A more federal structure is also seen as jeopardising the collective bargaining policies of the trade unions. The Italian bargaining structure currently privileges the national level over the regional or local level. The proposed new institutional structure might imply, for public sector workers, the abolition of national collective agreements and the establishment of regional-level agreements. If this occurred, the trade unions would have to question their structures, which are largely based on national sectoral organisations. Unions would have to undertake a difficult review of the relations between their central and regional organisations, which would entail a redistribution of powers and resources in favour of the latter. There would be scant possibilities of coordinating wage and bargaining policies and the gap between Northern and Southern workers would continue to widen.

According to Guglielmo Epifani, the general secretary of the General Confederation of Italian Workers's (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), the devolution plan is a form of 'federalism which divides citizens, territories and regions'. Savino Pezzotta, the general secretary of the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italian Sindacato Lavoratori, Cisl), has highlighted what he sees as the inherent dangers of the reform: 'with the devolution reform we will renounce a state based on social solidarity for a state based on social competition'.

Employers too have voiced many criticisms of the proposed institutional structure, which appears to them to be confused and onerous. Moreover, employers are seriously concerned about a specific issue which has not been clarified: the transfer of legislative powers as regards taxation of productive activities from the central state to the regions. The employers' organisations fear that a federal tax system would increase the tax burden on productive activities, constituting income taxation beyond the competence of the state. Employers are also concerned about the increase in regional bureaucratic costs which they believe will probably be added to the national ones, contributing to worsening the situation of Italy' public expenditure.

Italy's main employers' association, Confindustria, is very concerned about the bill. Its president, Antonio D'Amato, who had already taken a negative view of what he saw as the rush to approve the constitutional reform of Chapter V of the Constitution, stated: 'we must face devolution with great responsibility because it is a matter of redesigning the relations between public administration, companies, citizens and local authorities.'


The trade unions fear that, by entrusting regions with the exclusive power to legislate on various delicate subjects, the social solidarity at the basis of the Italian system could vanish in the federally-oriented transformation of the state.

The reform introduced by the previous centre-left government would have entailed lengthy concertation work among the institutions and the social partners in order to achieve a clear division of their shared legislative responsibilities. The proposal put forward by the centre-right government - though in order to become law it will have to be approved by parliament and in a referendum – erases the perspective of a shared structure and promotes the most radical political positions.

Trade unions and employers are concerned, in particular, by what they see as the peremptory and generic character of the proposed reform, which leaves to regions freedom of choice about the application of the various rules outside the national framework of reference. The central state and the national trade union and employers’ organisations would lose the possibility of intervening in the regulation of the productive and economic system. The regions would be able to conduct policies exclusively based on local interests, not taking into account national interests and the need for national development based on social cohesion. Social partner organisations themselves would have to adopt a federal organisation which would weaken their national leaderships and make the governance of these organisations more complex.

On the other hand, the transfer of powers from central to regional level represent an opportunity for the social partners to develop their capacity to influence regional decision-makers.

A weakened central state could have drawbacks at both national and European levels. European Union enlargement supposes strengthened powers at European level and the presence of national actors able to represent, within the framework of the new structure, national interests. A fragmented state would not be able to manage these interests. The political parties are developing concepts which envisage, together with a federal structure, the strengthening of central government through institutional solutions similar to the French model (a 'semi-presidential' model, with the head of the state elected by the people) or to the German one (a chancellorship model, with the head of the government elected by parliament). All these developments require a major review of the structure and policies of both trade union and employers’ organisations which, however, have appeared to be very reluctant to embrace recent innovations in the economic system (globalisation, privatisation etc) and the labour market ('atypical' and flexible employment). (Domenico Paparella and Vilma Rinolfi, Cesos)

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