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Will Venice Break Away Before It Floats Away?

Will Venice Break Away Before It Floats Away?

Photograph by Agencia Estado via AP Photo

Venice seems in perpetual danger of sinking into the waters of the Adriatic. “The brickwork is crumbling, slimy green algae cover the steps from which you once stepped into your gondola,” Bloomberg arts critic Manuela Hoelterhoff wrote last year. Thousand-year-old masterpiece mosaics are being affected by the damp that has reached 18 feet up the walls.

But Venice might break away before it floats away. In case you missed it, Venetians said “Arrivederci, Roma” last week in an unofficial referendum on independence sponsored by About 89 percent of the 2.4 million voters in Venice and the surrounding Veneto region who cast ballots were in favor of splitting away from Italy—to which the region was annexed in 1866.

This vote lacks the force of law and might have been largely ignored by the rest of the world in the past. After all, Venetians have been agitating for independence for years. But it’s getting huge attention this month because it fits a broader pattern: Scotland is seeking independence from Britain, Catalonia from Spain, and Flanders from Belgium. ”Many people are pissed off at their national governments,” Jacob Funk Kierkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, is quoted as saying last December in an article for the Knowledge@Wharton website.

A very different case is Crimea, where 97 percent of voters this month favored breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia. The difference from the other movements is that the Crimean vote was not authorized by the Ukrainian government and occurred only after the peninsula had already been seized by Russian military forces. Nonetheless, the Venice story has received big play on, the news website funded by the Russians.

Veneto, like Scotland, Catalonia, and Flanders, wants the upside of being part of Europe’s strong institutions—including the European Central Bank, the European Union, and NATO—without the downside of having to carry economically weaker regions of their own countries. (Again, Crimea is a special case.) In the unofficial referendum last week, voters in Veneto made clear that they weren’t ready to go off completely on their own.

But the rest of Europe isn’t enthralled with the idea of breakaway republics that want all the rights of Europe with fewer of the responsibilities. As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice: “One half of me is yours, the other half is yours, Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours, And so all yours.” Which means, um … what belongs to whom can get pretty confusing.

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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