Can Europe Make It?

Austrian passports for South Tyroleans are fine – or almost so

There is one thing calculated to diffuse Europe's nationalisms: the feeling a person can have – or develop over time – of belonging to more than one country.

Alessio Colonnelli
2 February 2018

Reinhold Messner in September 2016. Wikicommons/ Ordercrazy. Some rights reserved.In 2010, Hungary's governing Fidesz party offered Hungarian citizenship to all Magyars. This caused outrage in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and even Ukraine.

Today, it's Austria's turn. The newly elected government headed by Sebastian Kurz has revitalised an old nationalist idea, never really embraced by Vienna: conceding the Austrian passport to the German-speaking minority of Italy.

Not all South Tyroleans – half a million of them – use German at home. Sixty-nine per cent of them do. Others speak either Italian or Ladin, one of Europe's oldest languages, tucked away in the Dolomites.

The conservative-and-far-right coalition of Kurz's Austrian People’s Party and Heinz-Christian Strache's Austrian Freedom Party wants to explore ways allowing most South Tyroleans to claim Austrian citizenship. These would be German and Ladin speakers, both subjects of the Habsburg empire. Italian speakers, also natives of South Tyrol, would be excluded. (A few thousand Italian ethnic also lived in Habsburg-ruled South Tyrol, mostly in the southern-most part of it.)

Muddled families, no borders

Many on the Italian right but not only there, regard this as an intrusion in their national affairs. Others, more interestingly, deem it unnecessary for South Tyroleans to have an Austrian passport. For two reasons: Italy and Austria adhere to the Eurozone and Schengen, and thus have no borders; plus, South Tyrolean society has been so long divided, it is only now admirably coming together, making the Viennese geopolitical brainchild look untimely.

But there's another issue Vienna has not weighed up: how do you distinguish between native speakers when families have mixed so much since WWII? This is especially true in and around urban areas – the Bozen-Leifers conurbation, Meran, Brixen – and in the Unterland and Überetsch southern districts, where most South Tyroleans live. Like in any London borough, often you can't tell who belongs where. Can the bogus linguistic register based on self-certification – which you can easily change to aid job prospects – be of any help? Sixty-nine per cent? How pure is that figure, anyhow?


Lilli Gruber,2013. Wikicommons/Caltagirone Group. Some rights reserved.Many people inhabit two cultures, and are perfect bilinguals. Lilli Gruber and Markus Lanz are locals who have become famous in Italy and Germany, respectively: they're both acclaimed TV presenters. South Tyrol in a nutshell. World-wide known climber Reinhold Messner not only rubbished the Austrian passport idea, but also stated he's happy with his Italian passport and looks forward to replacing it in the future with a European Union-only one.

Belonging to more than one country

There's no real identity crisis in South Tyrol, as many international media would want us to believe. The overall indifference to Vienna's citizenship offer means South Tyrol has moved on from its past and is healing its own ethnic divisions.

Yet, there's one aspect that would have made the Austrian passport more of a success: offering it to those local Italian speakers who are either born there or have lived there long enough, and can prove their German is proficient. (The locally awarded grade A bilingual certificate could suffice.) The passport idea per se isn't bad; it's all about how you present it.

For there is one thing calculated to diffuse Europe's nationalisms: the feeling a person can have – or develop over time – of belonging to more than one country. A more generous offer by Vienna could then turn a sectarian proposition right around, and make it pro-Europe. For this to happen, of course, we need to wait for another government.

Meanwhile, locals keep enjoying their multicultural ways. “For many people in South Tyrol, [this] is yet another fringe, elite-level quarrel that has little to do with their everyday experience and concerns,” minority rights researchers Stephen J. Larin and Alice Engl poignantly claimed on a London School of Economics blog.

Having lived through something similar, the millions all around the Hungarian borders may well agree with this. Europe-wide, a growing number of people swap environment at incredible ease. It wasn't always like this. Only the rich could do it in the past. Ultra-nationalists had better change their tack.

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