Italian politics

ÖVP/FPÖ: Does Austria’s new government attack Italy’s territorial integrity?

Austria wants to offer dual citizenship to Germans and Ladinians in Südtirol. Welcome back in the 19th century.

I’m certain that this post will not find much support from Austrians. After all, this is a German talking about Austrian politics, and they usually do not to like that. Furthermore, Austrians very strongly support the idea that Südtirol (South Tyrol) should be brought back to Austria. About 90% of Austrians support this proposition according to a poll from 2015. Paradoxically, support was lowest in regions that are immediate neighbours of Südtirol.

And ironically, this poll did not ask people in Südtirol. The best indication that we have on their preferences is the opinion of their local government leader, Arno Kompatscher:

Wenn es die realpolitischen und rechtlichen Voraussetzungen dazu gäbe – wie gesagt, würde das im geltenden System die Zustimmung Italiens voraussetzen – würde sich wohl eine Mehrheit der deutsch- und ladinischsprachigen Bevölkerung sowohl für die Option eines eigenen Staates als auch für jene, zurück zu Österreich, aussprechen. Bei den Italienern in Südtirol würde sich das wohl umgekehrt verhalten, auch wenn ihnen Minderheitenschutzinstrumente zugesichert würden. Das Szenario ist aber wegen der fehlenden Zustimmung Italiens ohnehin völlig unrealistisch. Wir tun sehr gut daran, den bisher äußerst erfolgreichen Weg der Autonomie weiter zu gehen und die europäische Perspektive einer Europaregion Tirol-Südtirol-Trentino noch stärker ins Auge zu fassen.

If there were the pragmatic and legal possibilities – as I said, under the current system this would require the agreement of Italy – a majority of the German-speaking and Ladinian-speaking population would exist both for an independent Südtirol and for a return to Austria. This would be the opposite with Italians in Südtirol, even when assuring them minority privileges. But given the missing agreement of the Italian government, this is an unrealistic scenario. We benefit of progressing the highly successful path of autonomy and focusing even stronger on the European perspective of a Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino Euroregion.

Of course, polls exist also among people in Südtirol. Often they are launched by distinct secessionist groups, and sample accordingly. I’d question their reliability, but if you’re interested: one secessionist group lists them all neatly. We should not discard them entirely. A good guess would be to follow Kompatscher’s analysis.

Austria’s move

To that end, the following sentence that appears in the coalition agreement of the new Austrian government (of the right-wing ÖVP and the xenophobic FPÖ) at first seems legitimate.

Im Geiste der europäischen Integration und der Förderung einer immer engeren Union der Bürgerinnen und Bürger der Mitgliedsstaaten wird in Aussicht genommen, den Angehörigen der Volksgruppen deutscher und ladinischer Muttersprache in Südtirol, für die Österreich auf Grundlage des Pariser Vertrages und der nachfolgenden späteren Praxis die Schutzfunktion ausübt, die Möglichkeit einzuräumen, zusätzlich zur italienischen Staatsbürgerschaft die österreichische Staatsbürgerschaft zu erwerben.

In the spirit of European integration and support of an ever-closer union of the citizens of its member states, it is taken into perspective to grant to the members of the ethnic groups of native German or Ladinian language in South Tyrol, for which Austria executes a protective function on the basis of the Paris treaty and the subsequent practice, the possibility to earn aside of Italian citizenship also Austrian citizenship.

I know that the grammar of the English translation is terrible. I’ve translated it in this way to keep the same tone, in which lots of nice things are said before the elephant enters the porcelain shop.

In clear English: Austria puts on its political agenda the ambition to “give back” Austrian citizenship to South Tyrolians.

Here’s the other bit irony: Ten years ago, dual citizenship was an issue in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. There are original Italian-speaking communities in parts of Croatia, i.e. Istria. Since 2006, Italy offers Italian citizenship to ethnic Italian inhabitants of Istria alongside their Croatian citizenship. Back then, Croatia noted that it considered this proposition as an attempt of annexation. Now Italy understands.

So, is Austria actually trying an annexation of Südtirol from Italy?

It’s not that FPÖ politicians have never mentioned it. This one source is from as recent as 2016. Consequently, dua citizenship for Austrians abroad is a Südtirol-specific rule. Under the proposition of Austria’s new government, dual citizenship would not be granted to Austrians living elsewhere abroad. The secessionist parties are celebrating about strengthening the ties to the Vaterland (“the land of the fathers”) and declared that dual citizenship would already become an option in 2018.

Südtirol’s idea

This sentence is the consequence of heavy lobbying from Südtirol during the government formation in Austria. Various (mostly right-wing and extreme-right-wing, but also centrist) parties pushed the negotiating members of the ÖVP and FPÖ to incorporate such a statement. Hence, it’s difficult to say that it does not have the backing of parts of the population in Südtirol. (The vote in Südtirol ended 19 to 16 in favor of this lobbying initiative.)

I’m wondering about the position of centrist Arno Kompatscher, who had opposed dual citizenship until last year. His policy had always been to promote European integration instead. He was quiet on dual citizenship today. The chief of his own party, however, was at the forefront of lobbying for dual citizenship. His party is split on the issue, but those that support it claim that it’s only one first step towards a European passport.  To that end, they collaborate with partners who openly call a European passport an illusion.

It might be a move to defend their ruling party against the rise of the right-wing populists in Südtirol. I still don’t think that we can beat the right-wing by being more right-wing in the center. That’s just re-dressing the wolf and feeding it with small sheep.  You could also call it Max. It’s still a wolf. And it’s still eating sheep.

Dual citizenship would become an option for people in Südtirol that are members of the German and Ladinian minority. It’s not fully clear how that should be documented. A passport of ancestry evokes memories of Nazi-Germany’s Ahnenpass from the 1930s, which was used to testify clear non-Jewish origin. But let’s imagine that it was possible to uniquely classify each and every citizen in Südtirol as “Austrian” or not.

Real and symbolic consequences

Moderate proponents of autonomy argue that choice itself is a risk. Imagine that only few citizens of Südtirol opt for dual citizenship: Italy might take it as an implicit referendum against secession from Italy and find it justified to remove autonomy rights. At this point, however, Italian politicians are not looking that far ahead. Reactions are less favorable in Rome than they are in Bozen – but admittedly they are not outright negative. Well, some are. Gian Antonio Stella, a famous Italian journalist, compares this option with the one that Südtirol had in 1939: Hitler and Mussolini agreed that Italy would retain hold of Südtirol. Its citizen could opt to “return home” into the Third Reich or stay in Italy and adopt the Italian culture. Stella fears that those who do not opt for Austrian citizenship will be patriots of second rank.

And that’s not even to speak of Südtirol’s Italian-speaking population, which is now about a third of the overall total. Austria’s plan seeds rift in a region that for long has been an example of integration done-right. Südtirol is part of Italy for almost 100 years. There is at most a handful of citizens that have been born when it was part of Austria. Instead, there are thousands of second-generation and third-generation Italians that have been born in Bozen and around. They have built the country together with their neighbors.

I recognize that Südtirol came to Italy in a questionable way. It was annexed. However, the majority in Südtirol did not ever campaign for a referendum in the past 50 years. They campaigned for autonomy. Likewise, Austria accepted the autonomy agreements as sufficient and in 1992 declared its disagreement with Italy over Südtirol solved. Almost exactly 100 years have passed since the annexation. For the majority of these years, no Austrian government has actively tried to revert that.

Dual citizenship certainly is not only a symbolic move, not even within the European Union. At the very least, it’s a move that promotes ethnic nationalism. But dual citizenship implies complex situations when it comes to paying taxes and executing voting rights. Or mandatory military service. And that’s why it doesn’t exist.

The other Austrian parts of Italy

Austria’s potential offer of dual citizenship affects about 350,000 (of 500,000) citizens in Südtirol. But Südtirol is not the only part of Italy that used to be part of Austria. There is Trentino, for instance. Just like Südtirol, it was under Habsburgian influence and rule for many centuries before both were integrated into Italy. The only difference is that Trentino’s population always spoke Italian. Consequently, right-wing groups in Trentino have responded positively to the dual citizenship for Germans in Südtirol – and requested that it should also apply to historically native citizens of Trentino.

It’s even more complicated for Cortina d’Ampezzo. Cortina used to be part of Südtirol. It’s a Ladinian city. However, together with its surroundings, it was split off Südtirol and merged with the Veneto region. Then, the fascist Italianization was more dedicated and more effective, so that much of the Ladinian heritage is not so visible anymore. That does not mean, however, that contemporary inhabitants of Cortina are not direct children of Ladinian ancestors, i.e. citizens of historic Südtirol. Austria’s move ignores them. They don’t ignore Austria’s move.

A look outside

There are other minorities in Europe in similar situations. Austria itself hosts a Hungarian minority. There is also the German minority in Belgium. They, too, had come to Belgium via annexation in the aftermath of World War I. They, too, are considered a great example of how minorities can successfully be integrated into a state. They, too, experience economic success thanks to wide-ranging autonomy rights. They, instead, do not have any independence movement. Their perspective is:

We are Belgian citizens and are part of a German cultural nation.

Citizenship and cultural nationality do not have to go hand in hand. Citizenship does not define cultural nationality. In the European Union, however, they can differ and co-exist, since citizenship pretty much boils down to administrative obligations and national voting rights. Autonomy and/or federalism can protect cultural nationality. One can debate about the type of autonomy that a region should establish. Catalonia is an example that cultural autonomy can fail. Südtirol is an example that fiscal autonomy can guarantee also cultural identity.

Dual citizenship is not really a big thing, then, maybe. Yet it is, because the new Austrian government has been outspoken about their true opinion: They do not only think that German and Ladinian citizens of Südtirol are Austrian. They think that Südtirol is Austria. That attitude risks to open Pandora’s box. We will not get to “European integration and support of an ever-closer union” if we re-start moving around regions from one country to the other, closely following a 19th century spirit. If we truly want to progress, we need a dis-integration of nation states and an empowerment of the regions.

And yet: the dual citizenship idea is based on an initiative from within Südtirol. Under the current framework, Italy would need to agree. However, under the current framework, Italy itself cannot absolutely ignore that. Or: it can. But it shouldn’t. Instead, it could respond with a push for a European passport instead. Or: it should. But it won’t.

The wolf wraps it up

And then there is Crimea. Russia’s narrative tells that Crimea is a historic Russian region, that citizens of Crimea voted to get back to Russia, and that they needed to be protected. So they marched in, seized control, and pretended that everything was done to adhere to good international values. The situation is unresolved. The FPÖ has huge sympathies for the Russian move. They actively offer to campaign in Russia’s interest and accept Crimea’s annexation as legitimate. One week later, they offer dual citizenship to citizens of Südtirol.

So far, Austria’s move is a declaration of intent. I’m curious to see if they will unilaterally, i.e. without Italy’s consent, move on with this plan. The Südtirol paragraph has not been discussed much outside of Austria and Italy; other European countries focus very much on the tame teeth that the new coalition seems to show.

Don’t be fooled. The wolf is right there.

* End note: The photo belongs to Clemens Fabry and appeared in this article in Die Presse.

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