South Tyroleans Bide Their Time

Italy’s German speakers welcome a closer relationship with Austria but reject secession — for now.

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)

An Austrian proposal to extend dual citizenship to German-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol has heightened already tense relations with Italy over the region.

However, secession — in the wake of failed independence bids in Catalonia and Scotland — remains unlikely.

Accusations

Italian politicians have accused Austria’s new chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, of stirring up a nationalist hornet’s nest with his dual citizenship proposal.

“Even if done with the velvet glove of Europeanism,” Benedetto Della Vedova, the Italian undersecretary for foreign affairs, has said the move smacks of an “ethno-nationalist iron fist.”

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy — who are contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections on a joint platform with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi — has gone so far as to label the proposal an “illicit invasion” of South Tyrol akin to “secession in disguise”.

Kurz maintains that his policy is in keeping with “the spirit of European integration” and that it would bring about “an ever-closer union of citizens of the member states.”

Popular support

Austrians like it. More than 80 percent approve of the proposal. Almost 90 percent would support South Tyrol’s inclusion into Austria.

A 2014 survey found equally widespread support for a referendum in South Tyrol itself.

Yet in 2016, when Italy held a referendum on constitutional changes, South Tyrol voted in favor of centralization. (The referendum failed due to opposition in other regions.)

Separatists had urged a “no” vote, but the mainstream People’s Party, which rules South Tyrol in a grand coalition with the center-left Democrats, encouraged support for the reforms. They pointed out that the legislation contained a “safeguard clause” that would allow autonomous regions to bargain for devolution with the central government, an argument that 64 percent of voters apparently found persuasive.

Scotland’s failed independence bid, the fallout of Brexit and Catalonia’s struggles in Spain may also explain why South Tyroleans aren’t eager for further separation from Rome. It seems that, even though many worry Italy might go the way of Greece, South Tyroleans are playing it safe and biding their time in hopes of attaining as close a relationship with Austria as possible — dual citizenship or not.

History

After the dissolution of the Austrian Empire, Italy annexed South Tyrol in 1919. Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime tried to “Italianize” the region. Italian became the only official language. German names were changed. German associations and newspapers were harassed or shut down. German speakers were encouraged to emigrate and Italians were encouraged to move in. Only when this policy was reversed after the Second World War did Austria recognize the loss of South Tyrol.

However, Austria continued to feel a responsibility toward the South Tyroleans. It was with an view to curbing Austrian influence, and defusing separatist ambitions, that Italy gave the province self-government in 1972.

Several separatist parties remain active:

  • Die Freiheitlichen (“The Freedomites”) are the largest with six out of 35 seats in the provincial council. As right-wing nationalists, they campaign for South Tyrolean independence and consider Italy’s Northern League and Austria’s Freedom Party allies in this cause.
  • South Tyrolean Freedom supports reunification with Austria, but its priority is a self-determination referendum. It has three seats in the provincial council.
  • The Citizens’ Union for South Tyrol, once conservative and in favor of joining Austria, has rebranded itself as a centrist party that is for self-determination but against secession. It currently has only one seat.

The South Tyrolean People’s Party, which has Christian as well as social democratic elements, is the largest party with seventeen out of 35 seats. It supports autonomy and is traditionally the party of farmers and small business.