Far from characterising Italy only, regional disparities affect Europe as a whole. The objective of reducing regional divides, explicitly mentioned in the Treaty constituting the EEC, has accompanied the entire history of the European integration.
Recent studies on regional inequalities in Europe suggest that disparities have been rising in the last decades. As a partial explanation of this phenomenon, some regions struggle to keep up with technological changes and globalisation, while others, often (but not always) characterised by better starting conditions, have been able to redirect their production structures in line with the ongoing changes. More recently, the Great Recession has further complicated the picture, leading to different consequences and reactions among European regions.
In the light of the previous considerations, Italy’s regional disparities do not seem unique in comparison with the other main European countries. Taking, for each country, the minimum and maximum regional values in 2017, GDP per capita in the province of Bolzano is 2.5 times higher than in Calabria. A similar gap, always in relative terms, was recorded in France and Germany. An even higher level of disparity was observed in the UK, despite the exclusion of Inner London West, an area with a level of GDP per capita exceptionally higher than the rest of the country, from the analysis. Territorial disparities have not significantly decreased in the last decade. Indeed, Germany was the only EU member to experience an improvement between 2008 and 2017.
Within a common framework there is, however, an Italian feature that is not shared by France, Germany and the United Kingdom. In Italy, income inequality within regions is inversely related to the level of wealth per inhabitant, that is, the poorest regions have the largest gaps in income between the top 20% and bottom 20% of income earners. The situation has even worsened in the recent years. As a matter of fact, the Italian regions characterised by both a higher value of inequality and a lower level of per inhabitant wealth showed the most significant increase in the inequality index between 2008 and 2016. If this trend continues, the most fragile areas of the country are at risk of plunging into a downward spiral from which they will barely emerge, with not only economic consequences, but above all, also social ones.
The persistence or the widening of regional disparities both within the country and in the European context may undermine social cohesion among territories and generate partially unexpected outcomes. For example, recent studies suggest a connection between the spread of Euro-scepticism and regional characteristics such as economic decline, fewer job opportunities, and lower levels of education . Hence, it is more and more important to improve the effectiveness of regional policies, for instance by making them more flexible as to fit better in with different regional and national frameworks.
Finally, a not negligible issue is to make citizens more aware of the effects of territorial policies. According to a survey by the European Commission, in Italy, 41% of respondents believe that projects financed by European regional policy exerted a positive impact on the territory; it is the lowest percentage among the EU15 countries.