Campione d’Italia, a tiny sliver of Italian land inside Switzerland, has reason to feel like a pawn in someone else’s game.
Part of the province of Como, the 2.7 kilometer (one-square mile) commune about seven miles from the Italian border has faced a crisis since the closure last year of the casino that dominated its economy. The shutdown threw 500 of the village’s 2,000 people out of jobs and left its main street dotted with vacant storefronts carrying “for-sale” signs. A banner on a railing on Lake Lugano, on which the commune sits, plainly says: “SOS CAMPIONE IS DEAD.”
The casino was once the biggest in Europe. Now, creditors are fighting in an Italian court for their share of its 85 million euros ($93 million) debt. Meanwhile, two events have intensified Campione’s peril. One is a years-in-the-making plan pushed by Italy to tie the municipality closer to the European Union, which kicks in on Jan. 1. The other is a bold suggestion recently by a Swiss politician that his country annex the struggling territory.
“It’s an economic mono-culture that has failed and the status quo is unsustainable,” Norman Gobbi, the Swiss parliamentarian and member of the anti-immigrant Lega dei Ticinesi, said in an interview. People in Campione began collecting signatures a year ago for a petition to join Switzerland, “so annexation has to be considered as a possibility,” he said.
While Gobbi may have just been a provocateur, his comments raised hackles in Rome, with Italian parliamentarian Chiara Braga telling Corriere della Sera: “Campione is Italian and will remain so.”
An Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Gobbi’s words are “provocation aimed at local constituencies,” where the petition “gained no support in real terms.” A Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman said it’s up to Italy to suggest “a possible affiliation to Switzerland.”
For Italy, struggling amid a decade-long economic slump, retaining control is a question of pride. For some in Switzerland, consolidating its grip on Lake Lugano’s stunning lakeshore — and the country’s southern border — at relatively little cost could be tempting.
The tiff has reinforced the oddity of Campione d’Italia — a one-time haunt of Central Intelligence Agency spies and a propaganda vehicle for dictator Benito Mussolini — which is just 750 meters from Italy as the crow flies but a winding 16-kilometer journey to the nearest Italian town.
A function of Europe’s relatively porous borders, the village uses the Swiss franc as legal tender, while also accepting the euro. It carries the Swiss country code (+41) for its phone network that’s run almost entirely by Swisscom and uses Swiss firefighters but has security provided by the Carabinieri, the Italian military police.
How a sliver of Italy became marooned from the rest of the country is a story going back centuries. Campione was granted special status by a Lombard ruler who gave it to a local order of monks in the 8th century. For nearly a thousand years it remained a peaceful territory known for its stonemasons. In 1848, during the Italian reunification wars, Campione asked to join the Swiss canton of Ticino but was rebuffed by the neutrality-minded Swiss government. So began its modern incarnation.
A casino was first set up in Campione in 1917, designed as a way to listen in on foreign diplomats cutting loose there. Its status as a quasi-neutral playground prompted the OSS, the CIA’s precursor, to set up a base there briefly. Mussolini renamed it Campione d’Italia in 1933 to put an Italian imprimatur on it, and ordered up a new casino.
That building, a classic example of Fascist architecture, had reached the end of its safe life by the turn of the 21st century. So the town commissioned a new casino by Swiss architect Mario Botta: a bold, angular 60-meter high building that cost about 160 million francs ($160.5 million) and opened in 2007.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The global financial crisis hit and three rival casinos opened in nearby Swiss towns. Then the euro, worth as much as 1.68 francs in 2007, began a decade-long slide to near parity, eroding the gambling power of visitors from euro-zone countries. The heavily indebted casino closed its doors in July last year.
Now unemployed, many locals rely on euro-denominated Italian unemployment insurance and struggle to pay for pricey groceries sold in Swiss francs. Campione itself is barely able to pay for essential services like street cleaning and school maintenance provided by Switzerland. The children’s nursery had to close and the streets are eerily quiet.
“There’s no one,” said Alfio Balsamo, a former vice-mayor of Campione. “We used to have four, five thousand visitors daily on weekends.”
Nevertheless, sitting in his office on a quiet side street a three-minute walk from the casino, which he hopes will reopen someday, Balsamo said Swiss talk of annexation is plain wrong. “It’s all just a provocation, based on suppositions,” he said.
Campione is also worried about Italy’s push to include it in the EU customs union, something the country says was initiated years ago by the village. Its remote location had historically justified Campione’s exclusion but Italy has sought to overturn that anachronism.
The commune will stay outside the EU’s Value-Added Tax (VAT) zone to remain competitive with its Swiss neighbors, but entry into the customs union could still complicate things — everything from the Swiss registration of cars in the territory to Swiss insurance polices not valid on EU soil.
“The customs union would be a disaster for Campione,” Swiss parliamentarian Gobbi said. “It needs to postpone entry into the customs union and strike a new accord to resolve the provision of essential services for the territory.”
The two countries are in talks to ensure a smooth transition and “continuity’’ after Jan. 1 , said the Italian foreign ministry spokesman. Balsamo is less optimistic.
“It was a stupid idea,” says Balsamo. “Rome never thought of the citizens of Campione.”