As Italy struggles to emerge from financial crisis and revitalize its economy, a German-speaking minority in the far north of the country is growing increasingly susceptible to secession.
South Tyrol, among the wealthiest of Italian regions, already enjoys a high level of autonomy. The largest political party there, the Südtiroler Volkspartei, controls three of the five municipalities in the region and commands a majority of the seats in the regional legislature. The smaller and secessionist Südtiroler Freiheit is gaining in popularity, however, and plans to call a referendum on independence from Italy before parliamentary elections are due to take place next year.
In Rome, Prime Minister Mario Monti is grappling with an almost €2 trillion national debt, equivalent to more than 120 percent of the country’s annual economic output, and putting the squeeze on provincial and local governments to rein in spending and waste. But 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.”
Neighboring Austria could play a role in the dispute between the region and the central government as it is formally recognized as the “protector” of South Tyrol. The country’s secretary for European and international affairs Reinhold Lopatka insisted last week, after 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 maintained, “that these achievements could be undermined by way of budget cuts.”
South Tyrol was part of the Austrian Empire until after the First World War when it was annexed by Italy. Under the Italian constitution of 1947, the region was granted autonomy after an unpopular Italianization program during the Fascist period 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 anymore. 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 they later each adopted the euro.
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 in other Europeans regions.
Across the north of Italy, the separatist Lega Nord has been a political force to reckon with for years and it isn’t difficult to imagine it picking up more votes in next year’s election as the economic malaise that is concentrated mainly in the Italian south prevents the country from growing out of the crisis.
In Catalonia, Spain last week, left- and right-wing secessionist parties won a majority of the votes in a regional election and are calling for a referendum on independence from Spain.
In Flanders, Belgium, nationalists won a majority of local elections last month and demand fiscal independence from the French-speaking and poorer south.
Voters in all these regions consider themselves more industrious than their supposedly spendthrift counterparts. Their perception corresponds with a pan-European divergence between northerners whose patience with profligate Southern European member states of the currency union is wearing thin. Dutch, Finnish and German voters are increasingly frustrated with the bailing out of weaker states in the periphery of the eurozone when precious little progress toward fiscal consolidation and reform appears to be made in Greece, Italy and Spain. In the latter two countries, such frustration is increasingly evident domestically as well.