How Italy’s interior minister is selling off South Tyrol to Austria

On Friday  September 14th, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz went just across the Italian border for an official trip that was hardly tracked by the media outside Vienna. On the same day, Italy’s interior minister travelled to Vienna, and you just could not escape the news: Matteo Salvini and his Austrian ideological ally, far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) chairman Heinz-Christian Strache drowned themselves in selfies, all duly posted, writes European affairs commentator Alessio Colonnelli.

On Friday  September 14th, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz went just across the Italian border for an official trip that was hardly tracked by the media outside Vienna. On the same day, Italy’s interior minister travelled to Vienna, and you just could not escape the news: Matteo Salvini and his Austrian ideological ally, far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) chairman Heinz-Christian Strache – both are deputy prime ministers – drowned themselves in selfies, all duly posted, writes European affairs commentator Alessio Colonnelli.

Kurz and Salvini exchanged visits, in a way. And very punctually at that. You could reasonably argue that this was a coincidence; and it may well have been. However, given the current discourse, in and out of Italy’s predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol, one feels inclined to dig a bit deeper.

The South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP) was set up at the end of WWII to promote the rights of German-speaking citizens within a still oppressive Italian State. Bit by bit, over the decades, SVP gained for all South Tyroleans – no ethnic group excluded – a level of autonomy from Rome that has very few parallels in the whole Europe. Perhaps the Basque Country enjoys about the same degree of self-government, although measurements of this kind are always tricky to establish with absolute certainty. That being said, unemployment at the foot of the Dolomites stands today at an incredibly low 2.9 percent.

The region’s population keeps going up and up, having reached well over half-a-million people. Its capital Bozen/Bolzano has never had so many inhabitants, at almost 108,000 (the majority here are native Italian speakers, in marked contrast with the surrounding territory), with many new immigrants still coming from Campania, Sicily and Puglia (the whole urban area’s demographic is about 170,000, going up.) Fluency in German, a requirement in many jobs, and inflation at 2.4 percent do not put them off. It’s not unusual to be charged an eye-watering €1.30 for a humble espresso.

This was a necessary preamble to explain that despite such singular, sustained prosperity and a manifest propensity to attract individuals from elsewhere – on a par with the rest of the German-speaking world – SVP’s electoral basin has been eroded on the very right fringes of its traditional electorate.

Last week, Kurz attended the lauch of SVP’s electoral campaign for South Tyrol’s autonomous parliament elections (21 October) and gave a speech insisting on the fact that he will offer South Tyroleans the Austrian passport only with the permission of Rome.

Kurz’s proposal is an old one, stemming from the country’s far-right, which Austria’s social democratic governments always neglected to look into. SVP invited Kurz for this reason too: to tell its wavering electors, tempted to leave to go and vote the nationalistic Freiheitlichen and South Tyrolean Freedom, that SVP is listening to them, just as Kurz is doing by adopting FPÖ‘s rethoric.

South Tyrol is not a world unto itself. This happy mountain island is at the crossroad between Austria and Italy, as well as western and eastern Europe. As absurd as it may sound, both Africa and Russia are therefore not that far away, with all the global consequences that follow.

So, back to Salvini. He’s the one representing Rome now, at least until 2023, and possibly beyond that (opinion polls rate him very, very high). Salvini is likely to say yes to Kurz and Strache, making SVP happy too: South Tyroleans will almost definitely have their Austrian passport. One day at least. Clearly, it is not the Interior Ministry alone deciding on such a matter – dual citizenship for South Tyroleans – but its stance does have a substantial political weight nonetheless.

To FPÖ this means suddenly getting a lot closer to its open dream to bring half the Dolomites back to Austria. What a funny way to be a patriot, Salvini has. Unless his League is deep down still a secessionist party (its former Northern League version), in which case taking Italy apart of course would have to commence from the very top. Nothing strange about these carefully planned exchanges of diplomatic pleasantries, then.

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  • Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance writer and commentator focussed on European political and social affairs and a contributor to publications that include The New StatesmanThe Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.

 

 

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