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South Tyrol is a success story at a difficult time for majority‒minority relations

Why the multicultural Italian province of South Tyrol provides an interesting counter-example to other contested regions, such as Catalonia and Scotland.

South Tyrol is famed for its scenic beauty. Maxipixel. PD.Amid highly contested independence referendums in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, the impasse between Northern Ireland’s leading Nationalist and Unionist parties, and Scotland’s rejection of Brexit and independence vote not long ago—to give just a few examples—relations between majority and minority nations within the same state appear to be at their weakest since the 1990s.

This is not the case everywhere, though: South Tyrol, the predominantly German-speaking province in Italy best known for its idyllic Dolomite mountains and world-class wine, has just completed an eighteen-month participatory-democratic process to debate and draft a proposal for revising the 1972 Autonomy Statute, which granted the Province extensive autonomy and instituted power-sharing between its three official linguistic groups (German, Italian, and Ladin).

The ‘Autonomy Convention’ fell short of its participatory billing, and its results demonstrate that German- and Italian-speakers are generally concerned about different aspects of the autonomy arrangement. But the fact that it occurred at all is evidence that the combination of territorial autonomy and power-sharing has successfully transformed the relationship between South Tyrol’s linguistic groups.

South Tyrol (known as Südtirol in German and Alto Adige in Italian) was part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire until it was annexed by Italy at the end of the First World War. The Fascists subjected it to a campaign of forced Italianisation through the repression of the German language, mass plantation of Italian-speakers to the province, and resettlement of the German-speaking population to the Greater German Reich.

An agreement between Austria and Italy after the Second World War was supposed to protect German-speakers, but the 1948 Autonomy Statute left Italian-speakers dominant in Autonomous Region of Trentino–Alto Adige, which comprises of the almost entirely Italian-speaking Province of Trentino, and the mostly German-speaking Province of South Tyrol. The South Tyrolean People’s Party began pushing for greater provincial autonomy in the mid-1950s, and Austria brought the issue to the United Nations. Throughout the 1960s, German-speaking militants carried out a series of sometimes deadly bomb attacks against symbols of Italian state authority, resulting in mass arrests and allegations of torture.

A revised Autonomy Statute entered into force in 1972, devolving most powers from the Region to the Provinces and instituting power-sharing in South Tyrol—similar to the system now in place in Northern Ireland. It includes measures such as reserved administrative and political positions, executive and public service proportionality, cultural autonomy, a ‘group right to challenge’ (often misrepresented as a veto), and mandatory bilingualism for all public service employees.

The idea of the Autonomy Convention began in 2013 as a way for the governing coalition to legitimate amending the Autonomy Statute once again to reflect the many political, legal, and practical developments since 1972.

It ran from January 2016 to June 2017 and had four main components: ‘Open Spaces’, ‘Convention Talks’, the ‘Forum of 100’ (F100), and the ‘Convention of 33’ (C33). The first two were a series of discussion events held across the province in early 2016, intended to give all members of the public the opportunity to speak their mind and offer suggestions on how to revise the Autonomy Statute.

The F100 and C33 were each a kind of ‘citizens’ assembly’, with memberships proportionate to the distribution of the official linguistic groups, gender, and age in the province’s population. The former comprised one hundred representative residents and was meant to function as the connection between the people of South Tyrol and the C33. The latter was the only component of the process with formal decision-making power, and was made up of a mix of thirty-three politicians and interest-group stakeholders.

Around 2000 people participated in the Open Spaces and Convention Talks. The discussions ranged widely, from core Autonomy Statute issues such as Provincial competencies and public service proportionality, to broader topics that are outside the scope of the autonomy arrangement such as politicians’ salaries. Italian-speakers, women, and young adults were under-represented, and one group, the conservative South Tyrolean nationalist association known as the Schützen, bussed its members to every event and regularly dominated the discussion.

The F100 and C33’s deliberations took these discussions as their starting point, but there was little sense of direction or progress throughout the process. The C33’s final proposal, along with four dissenting ‘minority reports’ (all written by Italian-speakers), were presented to the Provincial Council on September 22. They demonstrate that there is a general divide between German-speakers, who are focused on expanding the Province’s institutional competencies, and Italian-speakers, who are more interested in relaxing the Province’s reservation and proportionality rules, which they believe unfairly privilege German-speakers.

Despite these and other disagreements, however, the relationship between South Tyrol’s linguistic groups has improved dramatically since 1972.

When asked about their views on ‘socio-political cohabitation’ between the linguistic groups in 1991, for example, only 8.2% of respondents indicated that it is ‘not a problem’. By 2014, that number had grown to 53.3%, with a further 30.9% describing it as ‘a minor problem compared to the past’. Other measures broadly confirm this shift.

The reason is that the combination of territorial autonomy and power-sharing has successfully transformed the conflict in South Tyrol by ‘desecuritising’ the relationship between the three linguistic groups.

German- and Ladin-speakers saw the actions of the annexing Italian state as an existential threat, and this perception continued under the 1948 Autonomy Statute. The revised, 1972 Autonomy Statute protected the interests of all three groups by realigning the balance of power, which has led to greater cooperation and changing attitudes over the past two generations.

The fact that these groups can now engage in a wide-ranging public discussion about significantly amending the autonomy arrangement without feeling threatened is further evidence to this effect.

Some people worry that the Convention only enabled right-wing German-speaking separatist parties, which wanted to include the right to self-determination in the proposed preamble to the Autonomy Statute.

But that was rejected as unnecessary, and while the recent electoral success of these populist parties is concerning, their gains come more from opposition to migration than support for secession. While most German-speakers surveyed in the province’s most recent ‘Linguistic Barometer’ identify as ‘South Tyrolean’ (80.7%) rather than Italian (9.3%)—or Austrian (2.2%), contrary to a 2014 Guardian article—the majority are nevertheless satisfied with South Tyrol’s place within Italy.

We are optimistic that the relationship between the three official linguistic groups will continue to improve, and have proposed elsewhere that the time is now right to shift South Tyrol toward a more inclusive form of power-sharing, which has received some support in the Italian media.

If there is a lesson to be learned from South Tyrol in the context of current affairs, it is that institutional accommodation can effectively address the interests of all parties without compromising the integrity of the state. And over the long, multi-generational term, the province may someday not need formal power-sharing at all.

About the authors

Stephen J. Larin is a Research Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Democracy and Diversity at Queen’s University, Canada. He tweets @sjlarin

Marc Röggla is a Researcher with the Institute for Minority Rights at Eurac Research, Italy. He tweets @MarcRoeggla

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