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Self-Determination in South Tyrol – The Red Eagle Spreads its Wings

Separatist movements gain strength in Italy again, after several decades of silence – away from Rome, back towards Vienna?

It is Saturday, April 14th, 2012. The streets of South Tyrol’s capital Bozen (Bolzano in Italian) are resounding from the sounds of thousands of marching supporters of the “Los von Rom” (“Away from Rome”) Movement. They are demanding, by raising their voices and corresponding banners, a future affording them the independent development of this northernmost region of Italy. Some banners also show the popular slogan “Süd-Tirol ist nicht Italien!” (“South Tyrol is not Italy!”), which refers to the historic and linguistic links with Austria. This also explains why the red-white-red colours of the Austrian flag can be seen everywhere: a large majority of the crowd favours reintegration of South Tyrol into Austria, having been part of it until 1919.

South Tyrol forms the southern part of the ancient region of Tyrol, an early dominion of the house of Habsburg that ruled over Austria, and later Austria-Hungary, from the 15th until the early 20th century. South Tyrol belonged to the Habsburg dominion from 1363 until 1919. The destiny of South Tyrol took a decisive turn when, in November 1918, Italian troops occupied the Austrian region, before it officially became part of Italy on October 10, 1920.

During the Mussolini era and still during the 1950’s and 1960’s, a campaign for Italianisation and severe repressions against the German-speaking Tyrolians and their cultural heritage led to a significant reduction of the share of German-speaking inhabitants. While in 1910, almost 90% spoke German as their mother tongue, fifty years later the share had been reduced to 60%, while the number of Italian speakers grew to 35%. Since the early 1950’s, many Italian-speaking settlers from poorer regions of Italy moved to South Tyrol, leading to social tensions between Italian and German speaking inhabitants. From 1956 onwards, the Liberation Committee of South Tyrol (Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol, BAS) tried to get rid of what they called the Italian occupation, by making use of force.

The BAS was founded by nine militant activists in the mid 1950’s, its main goal being a secession of South Tyrol from Italy. In the beginning, its campaigns included distribution of pamphlets and destruction of symbolic places and infrastructure, such as war memorials and power supply lines that provided the industry in northern Italy with electricity. June 11 and 12, 1961 saw the peak of BAS activity, when commandos destroyed thirty-seven electrical towers, thus interrupting the entire power supply of the Bozen area and large parts of Upper Italy on what became known as the “Fire Night”. Several leading members of the BAS were arrested in the aftermath, but the activities of the organisation continued into the late 1980’s, as its members maintained close ties with Neo-Nazi organisations in Austria and Germany. In thirty-two years of their activity, the BAS committed 357 attacks and bombings, causing the death of 21 people and leaving another 57 injured.

After the end of World War II, the Allied nations were unanimous in their decision to leave South Tyrol as part of Italy. But in order to protect the German-speaking inhabitants, a poorly conceived autonomy was sealed in 1948, which left the South Tyrolians dissatisfied because their region had been re-designed and united with the Italian speaking Trentino area – while the most important political party Südtiroler Volkspartei (People’s Party of South Tyrol) always claimed South Tyrol as  autonomous district in its own right. In 1972, the second autonomy status improved the situation of South Tyrol, granting many rights to the region. Since the renewed autonomy status got implemented and the German language and Tyrolian culture became protected by law, the share of German-speaking inhabitants began to recover and is up to 70% today.

Simultaneously the region has experienced a remarkable economic growth which can be attributed to a number of factors. For example, the second autonomy status guarantees that 90% of the tax revenues raised in South Tyrol remain inside the regional budget, while just 10% are transferred to the national budget set up by the central government. This clause of the statute created a quasi-independent economic development of the district since 1972. Thanks to a boost in tourism, but also in artisanship and a stable development in agricultural business – South Tyrol produces 10% of the apples cultivated inside the European Union, which constitutes a 2% share of the global market – making South Tyrol the wealthiest region in Italy.

The fear of getting drawn into Italy’s struggle against recession and its debt motivates many among the German speaking Austrian majority living in South Tyrol to revive ancient, but still unforgotten claims for a change of the region’s current status as an autonomous region in northern Italy.
Major differences between the northern region and the rest of the country are more than obvious: the unemployment rate in South Tyrol ranges between 3% and 4%, while Italy’s national average has reached 11%, and as high as 20% in Sicily. Recently, Rome demanded South Tyrol to pass on €850 million of tax income over the coming two years, in a total budget volume of five billion euros. This radical measure might be comprehensible in these tough times for the Italian economy, but it would break the 90% tax revenue rule which had been guaranteed by the second autonomy statute. Politicians in South Tyrol fear that Italy’s central government could urge its wealthiest region to transfer more than the 10% share of the total annual tax revenue guaranteed by the current autonomy status. Separatists offer vituperative condemnation of such measures, fearing the erosion of their province’s autonomy status.

An overview of South Tyrol’s political landscape broadly offers its inhabitants three options as of now. Firstly, there are those who seek to maintain South Tyrol inside Italy and these political parties almost exclusively obtain their votes from the Italian speaking minority. Such parties include the ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PDL), the centre-left oriented Partito Democratico (PD), or the neo-fascist Lega Nord – a party that has been fighting for a secession from the poor southern part over the past two decades in order to form a state calledPadania, consisting of all regions situated north from Rome, roughly the northern half of Italy.

The second group supports the region’s current status as an autonomous part of Italy, amongst them the South Tyrolian People’s Party(Südtiroler Volkspartei or SVP). The SVP is by far the biggest and most powerful party, but since the regional elections of 2008, it has lost a lot of votes and influence to the two main secessionist parties, representing the third group: Die Freiheitlichen and Süd-Tiroler Freiheit. Since 2008, especially Die Freiheitlichen, closely linked to Austria’s right wing party Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) increased their influence by increasing their vote share from 5.0% in 2003 to 14.3% in 2008. A recent poll placed them second with 23.7% of the vote share in the regional elections due to take place in October 2013. The secessionist parties can accumulate around 30% altogether, which is more than a triple of the share they obtained in 2003. The same poll predicts a massive loss of votes for the SVP, which already declined from 55.6% in 2003 to 48,1% in 2008, and now is expected to garner only 40.6%, meaning they would lose the absolute majority in the regional parliament for the first time since 1945.

South Tyrol’s regional government, which has been led by the moderate SVP since the end of World War II, still chooses to favour the current status as an autonomous region of Italy. But Luis Durnwalder (SVP), who has held the position of governor of South Tyrol since 1989, has already announced that he will quit his position at the end of this term. The coming change will be followed closely, because as the struggle of South Tyrol’s representatives in Rome to prevent Italy’s government from claiming a rising share of tax funds goes on, the position regarding a separate way for the region might be under increased scrutiny.

A highly symbolic gesture has already been made: after the announcement of Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti of reducing South Tyrol’s autonomy bydeducing much more than allowed from its tax revenue, the SVP Members of the Italian Parliament in Rome reported their critics to Austria’s Chancellor, Werner Faymann, stressing the fact that Austria still holds the status of a protecting power for South Tyrol. Faymann declared his “deep concern” over the latest developments regarding the conflict between Rome and Bozen. He also said that South Tyrol was a “central concern of Austrian foreign policy”.

The independence movements in South Tyrol got an impetus after an agreement had been reached on a referendum for independence in Scotland 2014. Furthermore, the separatists were more than encouraged when more than a million people gathered in the streets of Barcelona to call for an independent state of Catalonia.

South Tyrol’s latest political developments can be seen as another dimension of the difficulties that await the European Union in the years to come. The process of creating a united Europe is leading to erosion of state powers making state borders irrelevant, albeit slowly. Europe’s regions have developed in many different ways. While the nation states lost some of their influence and control, some regions are re-discovering their ancient economic, cultural and linguistic heritage.

Many in South Tyrol have have started hoping for a peaceful change of the status of their region but, at the same time, everyone knows that this development has to follow the guidelines of the European Union. All political representatives want to avoid the scenario of a violent split-up as it did happen in former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. Most people still remember the times of the separatist terror in South Tyrol and there is a genuine consensus on allowing history to repeat itself. Yugoslavia serves as a grim reminder of how things can go horribly wrong.

The elections of the next Regional Parliament of South Tyrol will take place in October 2013. These elections are already being treated as a referendum on the district’s future status in Europe. Will South Tyrol remain an autonomous region of Italy, will it be a Free State or will it re-join Austria after almost a century? And what will be the future positions of Rome, Vienna and Brussels regarding the status of the beautiful region between the Brenner Pass and Salurn? 2013 will be decisive for South Tyrol’s future development plans. Its choices will affect Italy, Austria as well as the European Union. It is an opportunity for the European Union can prove its current state of political maturity by balancing the interests of its regions and by maintaining a peaceful and respectful political environment.

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