Posted on June 14, 2005

Italy Invests New Power in Bloodlines

Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 11

ROME — As Italians prepare to vote this weekend in a national referendum on artificial insemination, it has begun to dawn on them that the controversial vote could be decided by a few thousand Canadians, some of whom have never set foot in Italy.

The referendum marks the first major test of a new law, designed to give full voting rights to all “Italians in the world” — that is, people descended from Italian immigrants, no matter how long ago they immigrated. The law, introduced in 2002 by Mirko Tremaglia, Italy’s Minister of Italians Abroad, offers full Italian citizenship and voting rights to anyone descended from male Italian immigrants. Mr. Tremaglia has repeatedly declined requests from The Globe and Mail to comment on the law.

That law, which will soon create deputies and senators in the Italian parliament who are elected by people with Italian blood in foreign countries, has sparked a crisis in the Canadian government. Never before in modern history has a foreign nation tried to elect representatives on foreign soil.

The vote taking place in the referendum — which, if it were to swing the vote or change the quorum in this heated campaign would create a minor crisis in Italy — is nothing compared to the controversy that will be created by the next Italian national election. That is scheduled for next spring but could take place sooner.

Canadian government officials say they are deeply concerned about the new law’s effect in that election. For the first time, people of Italian descent in other countries will be able to vote for their own members of parliament and senators — foreign-born people of Italian descent who will sit in the Rome legislature and have full rights to engage in debates and vote on bills. Never in recent memory has a nation elected officials who represent people living in foreign territory.

“Canadians voting in a foreign election is not an issue for us,” a Foreign Affairs official involved in the debate said this week.

“What’s different with the Italian law is that Italy has created a series of ridings where people not resident in Italy are supposed to stand for elected office and represent people who live in other countries. So you would have another government representing people on Canadian soil.”

Under the scheme devised by Mr. Tremaglia, a 79-year-old member of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing governing coalition, foreign voters will elect 12 deputies and six senators, who are presumably foreign-born citizens. They will represent four new ridings: North America, South America, Europe and the rest of the world.

Other officials from Foreign Affairs said that the law is considered a serious challenge to Canada’s sovereignty, as well as a potential source of foreign conflicts on Canadian soil.

“This is a very serious issue, and we want to find a way to express our deep concerns that does not provoke a diplomatic crisis,” another Canadian official said in an interview. Canada is likely to make a response to Italy as soon as the country calls an election, officials said.

Meanwhile, the referendum will provide an awkward dress rehearsal.

Canadian and Italian officials say they will watch nervously as the votes are tallied next week. The Roman Catholic Church has asked its followers not to vote, so that the referendum, which would legalize artificial-insemination procedures condemned by the church, will not reach its required 50-per-cent turnout. But the number of legal Italian voters in Canada, estimated at 100,000 by the Italian embassy in Ottawa, could be enough to tip the balance.

Officials at the Ottawa embassy and four Italian consulates in Canada said yesterday they have been working around the clock this week to tabulate the votes from Italian-Canadians, which will be sent to Rome this weekend to be counted. Most of the 130,000 Canadians who have received Italian dual citizenship or passports were mailed ballot forms and were required to mail ballots to their consulate by Thursday night for the vote, which takes place in Italy tomorrow and Monday.

When the law was introduced in the Italian legislature in 2002, it met little controversy. Mr. Tremaglia had been an outspoken advocate of citizenship rights for “Italians in the world,” a notion of ethnic identity along blood lines that Italy had explored during its Fascist period in the 1930s. Members of Mr. Berlusconi’s governing party were required to vote for it, and deputies from other parties have said they cast their ballot in favour because they did not want their parties to appear hostile to the new foreign voters.

In the end, only one of Italy’s 630 deputies voted against the bill. That deputy, a Sicilian member of Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition named Giacomo Bajamonte, said that he does not believe his fellow parliamentarians understood its implications.

“I was perplexed that senators and [deputies] could be elected abroad,” he said in an interview outside his office in the Italian parliament in Rome. “How could they come to parliament and claim to represent people here? What do they know about the things that are happening in Italy? They are so far removed, especially about economic problems. They don’t pay taxes and they don’t understand.”

This week, after the Italian media raised the prospect of the referendum being decided by people who had never been to Italy, Mr. Tremaglia suggested that perhaps citizenship in the future should be limited to those who could prove they can speak Italian. But it is too late to change his law, at least until after it has been applied to the next national election.

“The other MPs just followed the party line, and there was no discussion of what it would mean,” Mr. Bajamonte said. “Now they’re starting to wonder what they have created.”

Officials at Italian embassies and consulates in Canada and the United States said this week that they have been overwhelmed by the effort of trying to run a full-fledged election using only embassy staff. One official at the Italian consulate in New York City described the scene as “chaos.”