Can Europe Make It?

Using South Tyrol to solve Ukraine? Don't be stupid

The Italian minister of foreign affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, said that Italy’s mostly German-speaking region is an example for solving ethnic disputes in Ukraine and beyond. This is a flawed and dangerous piece of advice.

Alessio Colonnelli
3 March 2015

A typical South Tyrolean landscape. Wikipedia/Kuebi. Public domain.Would you ever think of suggesting that the eastern half of Ukraine (Europe’s largest country), steeped in a dramatic conflict bearing serious global repercussions, should look at forty-one times smaller South Tyrol for solutions?

Chances are most of you wouldn’t. But the Italian minister of foreign affairs Paolo Gentiloni did: he told the audience gathered on 9 February at Bloomberg’s summit in New York “Italy: We are Open for Business” that the Ukrainian crisis could in his view be overcome by adopting an ethnic model akin to South Tyrol’s.

A model? Think again: Italy’s irrelevance there is now as tangible as never before

Emotionally speaking, South Tyrol is light years away from Rome; and quite understandably so. More and more South Tyroleans are in fact unlearning Italian; they just don’t need it. Italy being there is as foreign a thing as you like. Why should it be otherwise, after all?

On the other hand most local young Italians (the third- or even fourth generation born there) are kept in ethnic compounds, forced to attend a school system devised in Rome, teaching them nothing about South Tyrol, nothing about its local Germanic parlance that’s used practically at all levels, and hardly anything about getting a firm grasp of standard German, the main language of business and a successful professional life. You get a cold picture of two parallel worlds – one big, the other small – that never talk to each other.

Rome is desperately clinging onto South Tyrol: through its deeply flawed Italian-language-only school system, it is hopeful to instil an Italian identity on the future generations to come. But with no German skills and no decent jobs, there will eventually be no Italians. That will mean a fully Germanic South Tyrolean population, one that will see nothing wrong with asking for a grand referendum the Scottish way. Legitimately so.

Its legally-bound outcome could mean South Tyrol breaking away from Italy. And many would argue that’s par for the course. This isn’t a model for ethnic conflicts; it’s more a patched-up temporary solution. Mr Gentiloni is clearly unaware of such dynamics: its upshot is to politely accompany one ethnic group on its way out. An acceptable solution, in a way – dignified assisted dying, like they do at Dignitas in Switzerland.

South Tyrol is firmly part of the German-speaking world, Europe’s wealthy core

Comparing Eastern Ukraine to South Tyrol is naïve and simplistic. Russia isn’t Austria or Germany. German-speaking countries (Luxembourg included) are Europe’s powerhouse – South Tyrol is firmly part of it. The same can’t be said about undemocratic Russia, with dissidents being criminalised day in day out.

Consider this: Angela Merkel wanted Jean-Claude Juncker to head the EU Commission – both German speakers. It’s no coincidence. German is the Continent’s most spoken language at native level: the levers of power are firmly in the hands of Central Europe. Italy can’t lay any claim on South Tyrol’s success.

The last decades of unprecedented  peace and technological advancements across Europe have spontaneously propelled the Alpine region back into its natural Germanic world; the one Italy’s military arrogance tried to snatch it from (Treaty of London, 1915).

The inter-ethnic matrix – the Walschen at a junction: germanising or dying out?

What’s more is that South Tyrol is slowly yet surely becoming an ethnically homogenous region: Italians, known as die Walschen, were 33 per cent in the fifties; now that figure has dropped to 21 per cent. The trend is a firmly descending one. (Italianised immigrants are temporarily keeping their numbers steady.)

Twisted democracy, governed by sectarian policies polluting the political arena across the spectrum with only a few exceptions – as anthropologist Dr Stefano Fait explianed in Contro i miti etnici (Against ethnic myths, 2010) – does not help.

And Italians are in fact very orderly and democratically disappearing from the face of South Tyrol, their descendants having either cleverly germanised (it’s called natural assimilation) or just left; or died. But really, would you move to a new country and not learn its language? You’d be bound to leave sooner or later, as you couldn’t function without integrating – it’s as simple as that. Education has failed majorly.

South Tyrol’s ever fewer Italian-speaking families have shrunk in size anyway – their salaries are too low due to their lack of adequate German-language skills. An ethnic group is dying a painful yet inconspicuous slow death; a natural one it must be said. Future ministers won’t be able to utter claims like Mr Gentiloni’s.

Ethnic homogeneity will make for a stable environment; if that’s the outcome intended by Mr. Gentiloni, fine – but homogenising is not the same as harmonising diversity. If this is forced onto millions of people it can spark serious animosity. For Ukraine that’d mean being back to square one.

Ethnic conflicts are coming to an end – in spite of Italy’s central government

South Tyrol’s infrastructure is excellent; its landscape management is outstanding as it’s informed by the highest environmental standards. Quality of life comes from there – not from Rome’s politics and its impositions, of which the school system is one remarkable and most conspicuous example.

Italy’s ministerial claims on South Tyrol’s excellence are out of place: Rome has no merit in it. If anything the central government is in the way between South Tyrol as it is and what still remains to be done, i.e. getting rid of its obsessive talks on ethnicity: it leaves several people on the margins. Resentment ensues.

Local Italian-language schools are at the root of the problem: a sign of Rome’s attempts to meddle with the region’s natural evolution. Fortunately that’s only a few people we are talking about compared to the hypothetical war-scarred millions in a post-conflict Ukraine. South Tyrol as a model for solving ethnic animosities in much bigger regions is an ill-judged, preposterous proposition; it just sounds pretentious.

The blindness of ministers who really couldn’t care less

After the minister for constitutional reforms Maria Elena Boschi talked about stripping Italy’s autonomous regions of their hard-won status – and their right to be regarded, if anything, as beacons for a federalism that’s never seen the light of day (Italy can’t give other countries any advice on such matters, really) –, now we have to listen to yet another government functionary talking publicly in very simplistic terms.

All the above being said, it is also very clear – it can’t be stressed enough – that South Tyrol isn’t a terrible place to live in, of course. The point here is to highlight that bringing up Italy’s most peculiar autonomous region as a model for solving complex international conflicts is plain wrong.

The model Mr Gentiloni bragged about as if it’d been cleverly devised by Italy’s political establishment – if only – is very much work in progress anyway; it’s like waiting for software to be installed on your computer: 33 per cent left; and then 21 per cent; and then, eventually, 0 per cent. Done.

Zero like the ethnic Italians left in South Tyrol one day. At that point the region will be a model, having solved its residual ethnic conflicts by eradicating diversity (it never really worked out). A near-100 per cent Germanic South Tyrol could democratically separate itself from Italy via a legitimate referendum, having lost the last threadbare string attaching it to Rome.

Multiculturalism sometimes fails; not because of people; because of short-term politics and its ill-timed policies (outdated education). And because of haughty ministers as well, who were lucky enough not to experience life under ethnic grids and don’t even know it.

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