Can Europe Make It?

South Tyrol: from secessionist to European dreams

Will the Scottish vote strengthen the secessionist movement in the restive Italian province of South Tyrol?

Marco Brunazzo
23 September 2014

The town of Corvara, South Tyrol. Wikipedia/Kuebi. Public domain.

The Scottish vote on independence from the UK has shown, among other things, that today’s European democracies are strong enough to withstand a democratic path to secession. It is plausible that, following the Scottish example, other European secessionist movements in the next years will use more consensual instruments to obtain their aims than in the past. This will eventually be the road that the secessionist parties in South Tyrol will follow in order to leave Italy and to join the Austrian Tyrol.

Since the signing of the Treaty of St. Germain in 1919, when Italy annexed the both province of Trentino and the region on the southside of the Brenner Pass from Austria, the history of South Tyrol has always been a struggle over the definition of the rights of German-speaking people, a minority in the Italian state, but a large majority in their specific territory.

On the one side, German-speakers have seen the incorporation of South Tyrol into Italy as a great injustice. On the other, Italian-speakers have considered the Brenner Pass as the natural Italian border. As a consequence, just after the annexation, the Fascist regime tried to assimilate South Tyrol into Italy: the German language was banned from all public offices, state bodies, schools and health establishments. Only documents in Italian were valid. The name Südtirol (or even any reference to Tyrol) was prohibited, with the Italian name - Alto-Adige - enforced as the province's sole name.

Moreover, many Italians were encouraged to move to Bozen/Bolzano, where Benito Mussolini had created an industrial zone. A scientific debate was even promoted by an Italian geographer, Ettore Tolomei, on how much the German-speakers were authentically Germans, and about the Italian substratum of many words commonly used in South Tyrol.

It is not surprising that, by the end of the Second World War, the German-speaking population asked for a return to Austria. The main proponent of secessionism was the Südtiroler Volkspartei (South Tyrolian People’s Party - SVP), a party established a few days after the end of the war and able to gather consensus from left and right, peasants and entrepreneurs, inhabitants of the towns and of the valleys, that since then has represented the majority of the German-speakers. On the other side, Italian nationalists proposed that the German-speakers wishing to join Austria should be obliged to leave the territory.

Italian policy toward South Tyrol has changed greatly since then. At the Paris Peace Conference held in 1946 and 1947, a great amount of attention was devoted to the province. The Austrian Government was invited to submit a proposal for the resolution of the conflict and, together with the representative of the SVP, it supported the idea that any agreement reached should be internationally supervised.

This is was one of the main points of the subsequent agreement signed on 5 September 1946 by the Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi and the Austrian Foreign Minister Karl Gruber stating that “German-speaking inhabitants of the South Tyrol Province and of the neighbouring bilingual townships of the Trentino Province will be assured a complete equality of rights with the Italian-speaking inhabitants within the framework of special provisions to safeguard the ethnic character and the cultural and economic development of the German-speaking element… The populations of the above-mentioned zones will be granted the exercise of autonomous legislative and executive regional power…”

However, the 1948 Regional Autonomy Statute only marginally achieved those aims: the main legislative power, for example, relied on the regional parliament and not at the provincial level. The emphasis on the regional institutions and their powers implied a major role of the Italian-speakers, due to the fact that the inhabitants of the Province of Trentino were almost exclusively Italian.

It is not surprising that about ten years later, the German-speaking community was out on the streets, protesting. The crisis escalated in 1956 when, for the first time, bombs were set off by secessionists seeking to draw international attention to South Tyrol. Then in 1957 the Italian Government announced the construction of a new neighbourhood in Bozen/Bolzano. German-speakers feared that behind that decision there was the intention to encourage new inflows of Italians and organized a massive demonstration at Sigmundskron (Castel Firmiano) outside Bozen/Bolzano which called for separation of South Tyrol from Trentino and also from Italy.

In this context, in accordance to the De Gasperi-Gruber Agreement, in 1960 Austria referred the dispute with Italy over South Tyrol to the United Nations. Resolution 1497 (XV) asked the two countries to resume negotiations with a view to finding a solution for all differences relating to the implementation of the De Gasperi-Gruber Agreement: the discussion of greater autonomy, or even independence for South Tyrol, was no more an internal Italian affair.

Nine years of negotiations followed. In the late summer of 1969 the Italian and Austrian Governments agreed a so-called “Package” of some 137 measures, most of them designed to revise the 1948 Autonomy Statute to the benefit of South Tyrol and leading to the adoption of the Second Statute of Autonomy in 1972.

An 18-stage Operational Calendar for the Package’s implementation was also negotiated and, at the end of it, Austria would formally declare that the dispute over the fulfilment of the De Gasperi-Gruber Agreement was closed. This declaration effectively pronounced in 1992.

Since then, the autonomy of South Tyrol is based on three factors.

First of all, a change of attitude by the Italian state toward its minorities: the protection of local linguistic minorities is considered a national interest. Moreover, the Italian constitution has officially recognized the legitimacy of the name South Tyrol for a region that Italian-speaking people have always called “Alto Adige” (the upper part of the Italian river Adige).

Secondly, primary legislative powers were transferred from the region (Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol) to the two Provinces of Trentino and South Tyrol in fields such as agriculture and forestry, tourism, protection of the country side, public health and welfare, communications and transport of provincial interest, mining, nursery schools, school buildings and school welfare, public works, employment exchanges, and vocational training.

Finally, secondary legislative powers were granted to the Provinces in areas like teaching in primary and secondary schools, trade and commerce, apprenticeships, promotion of industrial production, hygiene and healthcare, and sport and leisure.

Today the region of Trentino-AltoAdige/South Tyrol has very few powers, and parties are debating on the eventual adoption of a Third Regional Autonomy Statute emphasizing the European dimension and meaning of the autonomist experience of South Tyrol.

In recent years, South Tyrol has been particularly active in the promotion of cross-border co-operation, not only as a way to consolidate the strong economic growth obtained in the last decades that has made South Tyrol the wealthiest territory in Italy (and one of the wealthiest in Europe), but also because Europe is based on a complicated system of power-sharing that opens up new possibilities of influence for spatially limited territories on national policy-making.

At the same time, through cross-border cooperation, South Tyrol has the opportunity to reaffirm its cultural specificity by developing closer relationships with the greater Tyrol region and, more generally, with other German-speaking regions. As a consequence, South Tyrol is one of the founding members of Arge-Alp (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Alp), a body composed of cantons, provinces and regions in the alpine areas of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, and one of the promoters of a Euroregion grouping together both Trentino and Tyrol.

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