Britain isn't the only European country with a north-south divide to contend with. In contrast to blighty, however, in Italy it's the south that's falling behind. According to the Bank of Italy, GDP per person is more than 40 per cent lower in the Mezzogiorno than it is in the centre and north. To put that in context, it’s greater than the difference between the economies of the UK and South Korea.
Compare the country's biggest cities, in fact, and you'll find the disparity is even more extreme than that. This graph shows real GDP per capita at 2010 figures in selected cities since the turn of the century. Below we've also included a map showing their locations; the grey areas mark out southern Italy as defined by the European’s NUTS classification.
Real GDP per capita, $USD 2010. Source: CityMetric Intelligence.
The thing that instantly leaps out at you is that Milan is, give or take, twice as rich as the cities of the south. The municipality accounts for just 2 per cent of Italy’s population, yet generates around 10 per cent of national GDP. It’s most famous for its fashion industry, but it’s also the country’s media, tech, and financial capital.
It is, in the most literal sense, where the money is. Consequently, while Rome was showing signs of stagnation as early as 2004, Milan’s GDP per capita was growing steadily right up until the credit crunch struck in 2008.
At the other end of the scale you'll find Naples and Palermo, the key cities of the south, where (in 2010 figures) GDP per capita has been struggling to get above $25,000 for nearly 15 years now. To translate that into comparable national economies once again, that means that, while Milan is richer than Sweden, Naples is poorer than the Czech Republic. And, unlike Palermo, Naples shows little sign of progressing.
This divide isn’t new – in fact, it’s been in place essentially since unification in 1861, a process led by the northern kingdom of Piedmont and the Nice-born revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi – but the recent recession certainly hasn’t helped. In 2012, Italy’s youth unemployment rate stood at 35 per cent, which is quite shocking enough. In Naples, however, it was 53 per cent, and last winter the city was reported to be flirting with bankruptcy. The Mezzogiornio is making a play to attract more tourists, helped by the government's growing attempts to crack down on the corruption and organised crime which have dominated the region’s economy. Closing the gap, however, won’t be easy.
Unsurprisingly, this economic chasm has led to calls for devolution or even separatism – but not perhaps from the direction one might imagine. The Lega Norda (Northern League) was created from the merger of a number of smaller local parties, and campaigns for a federal Italy, with greater fiscal autonomy for the regions. In other words, what it wants is to reduce the flow of money from rich northern taxpayers to poor southern governments.
At times the league has even advocated full independence for the north under the name of Padania. In last year's general election, however, it received just 4.0 per cent of the vote, down from 8.3 percent five years earlier. Independence may be some time coming.