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South Tyrol should not be giving lessons to Barcelona

The governor of South Tyrol recently sent a letter to the Spanish and Catalan presidents highlighting his region's successful statute of autonomy. But things in this northern Italian province are not as rosy as they appear.

South Tyroleans in traditional dress in the village of Latsch. Despite being a province of Italy, around 62% of the population speak German as their native language. Paimages/Reinhard Kaufhold/dpa-Zentralbild. All rights reserved.Everybody likes the story of David and Goliath: the small guy teaches the big guy a memorable lesson. Justice is done. South Tyrolean politicians have played the David card ever since the postwar years, against both Italy and the local Italian-speaking minority. With reason, at the beginning and for a few decades following; but unreasonably, as of late.

Consider: the South Tyrolean People's party or SVP in its German acronym (an Italian translation does not exist, and there should be one by now) has been ruling the region for seventy years. Its politics has arguably made South Tyrol just as prosperous as its wealthy northern neighbour, Austrian Tyrol. The economic and linguistic continuum is luckily intact. But is it all as rosey as academics and the mainstream media alike portray it?

Milan's financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore regularly ranks the province as the best in Italy for standards of living. It came only fourth (out of 110) this year, much to everyone's surprise. Some reckon the nation-wide known table – made up of no fewer than 42 criteria – got arbitrarily fiddled with just to ring the changes.

Too good (and perfect) to be true? So, right in the middle of Europe you have a region with an extremely favourable tax arrangement, which has promped Lombardy and Veneto – at the western and eastern flanks of South Tyrol – to call for their own referendums as a first step on the long path that could put them on a par with their German-speaking neighbour in terms of fiscal autonomy.

This, clearly, has nothing to do with the Catalan crisis, even though much of the international press enjoyed drawing a common narrative about a supposed EU meltdown. On the other hand, hardly a word was written on Spain's and Italy's respective chronic incapability of developing a federal state. Not Brussels' fault.

But back to South Tyrol. Basking in your own glory can be delicious but rather inebriating after a while. Success can go to your head. You feel qualified to dish out unrequested solutions. Arno Kompatscher, the governor of South Tyrol – whose population is divided up into ethnic entrenchments euphemistically called 'language groups' – must've felt so when he sent a letter in October to both Spain's prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont highlighting the success of his region's statute of autonomy. The unknown holy grail the Iberians ought to aspire to, in Kompatscher's view.

In that letter, however, it seems that no thought was given to the huge demographic and societal differences between Catalonia and South Tyrol. Let alone their history. And how ironic that Kompatscher's deputy Christian Tommasini years ago thought of introducing a language learning method, borrowed from Barcelona – based on voluntary informal teaching – to rebalance the enormous disparities in bilingualism.

South Tyroleans are all supposed to be bilingual: a myth that has endured to this day. In reality, only the privileged are, because this is also a class issue as well as an ethnic one. There's an intersection at which the so-called disagio – uneasiness – is felt by many monolingual Italian-speakers who find themselves like rats in a trap. The cheese was there to entice, but not meant to be eaten.

In Bolzano's poverty pockets – in and around the regional capital's council estates, whose dwellers (who mostly only speak Italian) no one ever bothers to interview – support for far-right politics is on the up. Bolzano was the very first council in Italy to see the neo-fascist party CasaPound win a seat. Hardly surprising. They were among the very few to bother with canvassing in some neglected streets, whilst their arch-rivals the South Tyrolean Freedom party (much further to the right than Kompatcher's SVP) chose inflammatory “[Vote] For a more Germanic town” posters.

A divided school system – the fault lines are purely ethnic – denying many legitimate aspirations while others enjoy complete job security (the exact opposite of what Catalonia's open society has on offer) was recently damned by the Rome-based film director Gustav Hofer, a born-and-bred South Tyrolean with a cosmopolitan mind, having studied at in Vienna and London.

Interviewed by the weekly Ff (issue 36/2017), he said: “South Tyrol quickly became Italy's richest region, having started off as one of the poorest. There's a prevailing hubris there now, everyone thinks they've made it by themselves alone. But what actually happened is that a lot of help came from both Italy and Austria. So, despite having developed economically, the cultural mindset is the same as ever.”

Asked to provide an example, Hofer replied: “People always say: 'We are all South Tyrolean'. Nonetheless, German- and Italian-speaking South Tyroleans live in worlds apart. This will always remain so until we break up the current education system.”

Catalans, take note. In this prolonged time of crisis, after the many great things and the few (redeemable) mistakes you've made, you certainly don't need now to take lessons from the South Tyrolean establishment – a David aping Goliath, a tale turned on its head.

About the author

Alessio Colonnelli holds a B.A./M.A. in languages and literary translation from Padua University, Italy. He has worked in Madrid and Barcelona, and as an international press editor for a well-known media intelligence company in London. He has written for The Independent, International Business Times, Little Atoms, Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, Left Foot Forward and the LSE blog Euro Crisis in the Press.

Alessio Colonnelli tiene una B.A./M.A. en idiomas y en traducción literaria de la Universidad de Padua, Italia. Ha trabajado en Madrid y Barcelona, y ha sido un editor de prensa internacional para una conocida empresa de inteligencia de prensa en Londres. Ha publicado en The Independent, International Business Times, Little Atoms, Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, Left Foot Forward y el blog de la LSE Euro Crisis in the Press.

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