Austria’s new centre-right government plans to introduce dual citizenship for members of Italy’s German-speaking minority. These plans have been met with suspicion or outright rejection by all parties in Rome but have been welcomed by many minority leaders. CCC Researcher Patrick Utz asks what it would mean for German-speaking South Tyroleans to hold an Austrian passport besides their Italian one, and what are the implication for the existing autonomy provisions in Italy’s northernmost province.
Since Austria has renounced its territorial claims to Italy’s predominantly German-inhabited province of South Tyrol in 1946, the country has acted as the ‘protecting power’ of the germanophone minority. This has translated into continuous efforts to pressure the Italian government to implement and safeguard the far-reaching political autonomy that entered into force in the early 1990s.
Granting citizenship, or establishing any other immediate legal links between the Austrian state and the inhabitants of South Tyrol has never been on the agenda of any Austrian government – until now. The entry of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) into the government in Vienna and against the backdrop of growing secessionist movements in South Tyrol has created a new context. However, what seems at first glance to be a benevolent means to empower a national minority might eventually undermine the already existing measures of minority protection in South Tyrol.
First of all, Vienna’s recently inaugurated coalition government plans to give Austrian citizenship only to those inhabitants of South Tyrol that declare themselves part of the German or Ladin (a Rhaeto-Romance language spoken by approximately 21,000 people) language group. The Italian-speakers of the province, who make up about a third of the population, would be excluded from this measure. Arguably, Italian-speakers could opt into one of the other language groups, if they wanted to acquire Austrian citizenship. Yet, Austria’s plans are arguably more exclusive than citizenship legislation in other, comparable regions. In Northern Ireland, for instance, Irish citizenship is open to the region’s residents regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation.
By the same token, critics have argued that the possibility of gaining Austrian citizenship might divide South Tyrol’s German-speaking population in ‘dual’ and ‘single’ citizens, and might ultimately encourage a new polarization along the lines of identity and emotional-political attachment with the kin-state. Based on this argument, progressive forces in the province reject all forms of plebiscitary national self-determination.
Granting Austrian citizenship to those who declare themselves to be German or Ladin-speakers also undermines the original purpose of what is known as the ‘Declaration of Language Group Affiliation’ (Sprachgruppenzugehörigkeitserklärung). In this procedure, the inhabitants of the province state with which of the three autochthonous language groups (German, Italian or Ladin) they identify, in order to be eligible for certain public services or public sector jobs.
This measure was first introduced in the 1970s to facilitate affirmative action and to counterbalance the then predominance of Italian-speakers in public services. Today, the Sprachgruppenzugehörigkeitserklärung is a key instrument for managing ethnic relations in South Tyrol and has proven largely beneficial for the local minorities. Linking the language group affiliation to citizenship rights in another country would be beyond the measure’s original intention. It could, eventually, hollow out the legitimacy of affirmative action and related provisions, with uncertain consequences for minority-majority relations in the province.
Lastly, Austria’s plans could undermine the territorial dimension of South Tyrol’s autonomy and its status as the minority’s ‘protecting power’ that is now enshrined in international law. Opening citizenship to South Tyroleans would put Austria’s role as a protecting power on a more individual basis. Those South Tyroleans with Austrian citizenship could then call on the government in Vienna if they see their minority rights violated, while those who only hold Italian citizenship would apparently have a more limited access to this means.
This is problematic for the affected individuals but it also has implications for the province of South Tyrol as a territorial entity. So far, Austria’s and the minority’s elites have used the province’s unique ethnic composition to justify its far-reaching autonomous competences – even when reforms in the rest of Italy pointed in a more centralist direction. It would be much harder to defend South Tyrol’s special status in light of eventual constitutional reforms in Italy, if the national minorities there are granted an ‘exit option’ through the acquisition of Austrian citizenship.
In short, Austria’s plans to open citizenship to Italy’s German-speakers might undermine substantial parts of the arduously negotiated, but largely successful, minority protection measures in South Tyrol. Until now, the new Austrian government has merely stated vaguely formulated intentions and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has repeatedly excluded any unilateral steps in this respect. Given the scepticism among all parties in Rome, it might this time be the Italian side that acts as a far-sighted ‘protecting power’ of South Tyrol’s interests.