South Tyrol Resists Austerity, Contemplates Secession

Italy’s German-speaking minority resents being told to cut spending when it doesn’t even have any debt.

View of Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, Italy, July 30, 2007
View of Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, Italy, July 30, 2007 (Flickr/gigi62)

As Italy struggles to find its way out of the financial crisis, German speakers in the far north of the country are growing restless.

South Tyrol, one of the wealthiest parts of Italy, already enjoys a high degree of self-government. The autonomist People’s Party, who favors the status quo, controls three out of five municipalities as well as a majority of the seats in the regional legislature.

But a smaller and more radical party, South Tyrolean Freedom, is gaining in popularity. It wants a referendum on independence before Italian parliamentary elections can be held next year.

Debt

The central government in Rome, whose debt equals more than 120 percent of Italian economic output, is putting the squeeze on provincial and local governments to rein in spending. Debt-free South Tyrol is recalcitrant.

The region’s governor, Luis Durnwalder, told the Austrian newspaper Die Presse earlier this month:

We understand the need for cuts and we must cut as well. What we cannot accept is that we are told where to cut.

Protector

Neighboring Austria could play a role in the dispute. It is formally recognized as the “protector” of South Tyrol.

Austria’s secretary for European and international affairs, Reinhold Lopatka, insisted after a meeting with South Tyrolean representatives in Vienna that the region’s “autonomy and all the achievements linked to it are internationally recognized and have an important model function. It is therefore unthinkable,” he said, “that these achievements could be undermined by way of budget cuts.”

South Tyrol was part of the Austrian Empire until its collapse in 1919, when it was annexed by Italy. Under the Italian constitution of 1947, the region was granted autonomy after an unpopular Italianization program under Fascism had failed.

Further responsibilities were delegated to the regional government in 1971, when Austria also pledged in a treaty with Italy not to intervene in its internal affairs.

Austria’s accession to the European Union in 1995 seemed to have settled remaining dissatisfaction in both countries as the border between them disappeared and each adopted the euro.

Separatists everywhere

In the region itself, the German-speaking population never gave up its dreams of either independence or of one day rejoining Austria. The present fiscal crisis appears to have rekindled those aspirations — as it has elsewhere.

Across the north of Italy, the separatist Northern League has been a political force to reckon with for years. It is likely to pick up more votes in next year’s election as the economic malaise that is concentrated mainly in the Italian south holds the country back.

In Catalonia, secessionist parties have a majority and are calling for a referendum on independence from Spain.

In Flanders, nationalists also have a majority and are calling for fiscal independence from the French-speaking and poorer south of Belgium.

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