When Italians elect a new parliament later this month, a German-speaking minority in the far north of the country will be contemplating secession. As in other wealthy regions in Europe, inhabitants of South Tyrol feel that they’re unfairly paying for the revitalization of the rest of the nation’s economy.
Separatist sentiments in South Tyrol, which was part of Austria until after the First World War, are hardly new. The Südtiroler Volkspartei has long dominated local and regional politics. It controls three out of five municipalities in the region and commands a majority of the seats in the regional legislature. But its willingness to cooperate with mainly left-wing parties at the national level threatens to erode its support in favor of fringe independence parties on the right.
The Volkspartei is a “big tent” party. Like the Lega Nord, which seeks independence for the whole north of Italy, it has long garnered support from Christian and Social Democrats as well as conservatives. Unlike the Lega, which propped up former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s administrations in the past, the South Tyrolean party has recently leaned more to the left. For the sake of February’s parliamentary election, it joined Pier Luigi Bersani’s left-wing alliance. Polls predict that the latter’s Partito Democratico will win a plurality of the seats in the lower chamber of parliament, enabling Bersani to claim the prime ministership.
Right-wing populists in the German-speaking region are critical of what they perceive as the Volkspartei selling out to national political interests. It has allowed itself to be “an extension of a national party that will only serve the interests of the state, not those of South Tyrol,” said Eva Klotz of the Südtiroler Freiheit party last month. Südtiroler Freiheit, which is gaining in popularity among right-wing voters, advocates an independence on South Tyrolean independence.
The separatists are emboldened by recent moves on the central government’s part to consolidate tax and spending policies. The region was granted autonomy under Italy’s 1947 constitution and further powers were delegated to the regional government in 1971. Prime Minister Mario Monti, who took over from Berlusconi in November 2011 when Italy seemed on the brink of a sovereign debt crisis, has tried to force provincial administrations to rein in spending and reduce waste. Debt free South Tyrol is recalcitrant. Its governor, Luis Durnwalder, told the Austrian newspaper Die Presse late last year, “We understand the need for cuts and we must cut as well. What we cannot accept is that we are told where to cut.”
The added political interference from Rome, which all of Italy’s provinces endure, is particularly hard for South Tyrol to accept as it suffers none of the deficit spending and corruption that is present in many other parts of the country.
Similarly, the whole north of Italy resents paying extra taxes and seeing public-sector spending reduced when it’s the largely agrarian and more corrupt south where politicians have for years failed to make ends meet. Hence the popularity of the Lega Nord.
In Catalonia, Spain and Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flanders, similar separatist movements have grown or sprung up in recent years. In the former, secessionist parties won a majority of the seats in the regional parliament in November of last year. They intend to call a referendum on independence as well, although the central government in Madrid insist such a vote would be illegitimate. The Flemish nationalists won more than a quarter of the votes in the north of the country in 2010 and emerged as the largest party from local elections held in October.
What these separatist movements have in common is that they appeal to conservative voters who consider themselves more frugal and industrious than their supposedly spendthrift neighbors, a perception that can be observed in Europe at large in countries that feel they are bearing the brunt of saving the single currency union while little progress toward fiscal consolidation and economic reform appears to be made in the south.
If, as polls predict, the Italian left with support from the Südtiroler Volkspartei wins next week’s election and preserves the budget policies of the incumbent administration, the smaller Südtiroler Freiheit might well endear itself to even more German-speaking voters who would rather their region be free of Rome’s interference altogether.