Can Europe Make It?

Rome and its fear of dissent

South Tyrolean separatists were recently denied the chance to express their discontent in the capital.

Alessio Colonnelli
2 September 2016

Sign in South Tyrol. Wikimedia. Public domain.

On 18 August, Rome city council forbid Südtiroler Heimatbund (SHB) from plastering walls with a thousand placards. The intended message: “South Tyrol is not Italy!”, spelt out in capitals on a red-white-red background (the Austrian flag).

What’s behind the dissent? South Tyrol joined Italy as part of WWI reparations. Today, only Greater Milan can boast higher median wages than South Tyrol, by a small margin. Nonetheless, the alpine region does have small pockets of urban marginalisation: ageing, working-class Italians, let down in their youth by a split school system that has always kept people apart. Even now.

The German-language education authority takes a firm line: children shouldn’t speak any Italian in the playgrounds. Schools are meant to forge an ethnic identity. The few Italian-language schools carry on in a parallel world, run by a separate education authority instructed by Rome, ethnic identity tools themselves. Merging the two systems to create a fairer bilingual education for all (like in Luxembourg) and save taxpayers’ money is an anathema.

Fighting this has always cost a fair bit. Those who can’t afford educational extras, silently fall behind. It affects more Italian speakers, a dwindling community, with the job market shaped around German. South Tyroleans rejecting ethnic barriers do exist: authorities ignore them, preferring to dish out cast-iron identities for political control purposes. Sorting out people like mail at the clearing depot creates jobs for some and positions of power for others.

The wider context

Border regions were never ethnically compact. Europe offers countless examples of this: Slovenes and Croats in Austria, Danes in Germany, Germans in Denmark, Hungarians in Romania and Serbia, and so on. The list is never-ending.

But drawing the right lines in the sand, or soil, was never all that important to ordinary folk: diverse communities can live side by side. Bosnians happily did so, until external forces blew everything apart. (Simplifying, one could say the same about the Jews.)

Catalans still do, despite nationalism, a fantasy bubble that never burst, but is slowly deflating: the crucial ethnic card can’t be played, groups mixed too much for that to be possible. However, the Catalan language was never forgotten: the sign of a healthy society, open to outsiders. Yet, linguistic survival isn’t enough to go it alone and set up shop elsewhere. You need economic reasons for that and proof that the rest of the country is exploiting you. And Spain isn’t.

Faraway Catalan separatists are among those providing ideological inspiration to SHB and its political arm, the South Tyrolean Freedom party (STF), although the parallels from Spain end there: STF is not like the now-dead Batasuna and SHB – despite its distant roots – is nowhere near comparable to disbanded ETA.

STF and SHB campaign entirely within the law. The latter formally asked Rome in writing for permission to put up placards.

Stiff bureaucrats

Italian democracy allows all forms of speech that don’t incite hatred or indulge in the apology of terrorism or Nazi-fascism. Anything else pretty much goes, but Rome city council didn’t follow this line: calling for South Tyrol to separate from Italy was deemed outrageous.

A hundred years on, Austria is today a different place, and so is South Tyrol. The question as to what would happen to the Italian language in the region doesn’t bother SHB. To hell with Dante. In SHB’s view, Italian has neither enriched South Tyrol nor made it special.

Consider this, though: Sorbian and Danish (Germany), Slovenian and Croatian (Austria), French and Italian (in some bilingual Swiss Cantons) are autochthonous languages straddling the porous boundaries of the German-language world, which was made more open and compact by the fall of the Berlin wall, Schengen, the euro and sundry bilateral agreements.

South Tyrol is firmly part of that very world (deutscher Sprachraum) and sits among those fluid places, where languages cohabit. Thousands of Italian native speakers have lived for centuries in the region’s southern tip, before joining Italy. An ever improving self-governing statute, the envy of ordinary status regions, is the official rubber stamp on South Tyrol’s special nature.


The world still looks at Italy’s secessionist problem through the Northern League (NL) and believes that the Veneto is pushing to leave. It never really was, and it certainly isn’t now. NL leader Matteo Salvini aspires to be prime minister. His focus now encompasses the south. This is the new ‘Northern-and-Southern League’: united against those pouring in from across the Med.

Enthusiastic secessionists are to be found instead in overlooked South Tyrol. The ruling, conservative South Tyrol People’s (SVP) party treats separatists condescendingly: the deal they cut with Italy is generous. SVP are just not too vocal about this for fear of losing votes on the right. Much further to the right, dissent is however rising fast and lepéniste feelings take sharp separatist tones.

Rome city council’s letter to SHB, as published in Die Neue Südtiroler Tageszeitung, states that “the content of the placard ‘South Tyrol is not Italy!’ makes a false claim, one that is in contrast with article 116 of the Italian Constitution.”

The warning lacks political understanding. The story appeared in national newspapers. Free advertising. Better than one thousand posters in a city of three million, a drop in the ocean. Emboldened by the unexpected spin, SHB has now resorted to an unnamed lawyer to take legal action against the municipal verdict. Wrapped up in its own problems, Rome unwittingly offered the victimisation card on a silver platter; and may well have to cough up for the mistake.

South Tyroleans are so used to hearing ‘South Tyrol is not Italy!’ that you do wonder if they still take any notice. With a per capita income on the par with Austrian Tyrol – the  second-highest in Italy – and freedom of speech that uptight Rome council doesn’t appreciate, life in the region can’t be bad.

Heaven-like it may not be, but painting South Tyrol as a post-colonial dive does sound far-fetched. So, let any dissent howl – most people will decide whether the lament is genuine or not.

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