ECMI Minorities Blog. 50 Years of South Tyrolean Autonomy

Andrea Carlà
2023-01-24
image courtesy: shutterstock.com

Author:  Andrea Carlà |  

* Andrea Carlà (PhD in Politics, New School for Social Research, New York, USA - Postgraduate studies in Diplomacy and International Relations, University of Bologna, Italy) is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Minority Rights of Eurac Research in Bolzano/Bozen (South Tyrol, Italy). His research explores the interplay among ethnic politics/minority protection, migration studies and security issues, focusing especially on the concepts of (de)securitization and human security and their application to minority issues. Andrea is part of the Network Board of the Erasmus+ project “The Securitization of Migrants and Ethnic Minorities and the Rise of Xenophobia in the EU” (SECUREU) (11.2020-11.2023). The author can be contacted at: andrea.carla@eurac.edu

2022 witnessed the 50th anniversary celebrations of the so-called second Statute of Autonomy of South Tyrol, a complex set of institutional mechanisms and norms that contributed to ending the ethnic tensions that in the past had characterized this Italian province, located at the borders with Austria and Switzerland and distinguished by the presence of German- and Ladin-speaking populations.[1] At the same time, 30 years have passed since the dispute between Italy and Austria over South Tyrol was officially concluded at the United Nations. Academic conferences, webinars, podcasts, and various public events have been organized to celebrate these anniversaries, often by the new Center for Autonomy Experience, which was created with the support of the South Tyrolean government to share experience and knowledge about the province’s autonomy and its protection of the German- and Ladin- speaking populations.

Following Italian annexation in 1919 as the spoils of war, Fascist policies of discrimination and Italianization, Nazi occupation, and – starting in the 1950s – terrorist actions in the name of self-determination for South Tyrol, the 1972 second Statute of Autonomy put in place a “complex power sharing” system through which the German and the Ladin linguistic communities in South Tyrol enjoy one of the most advanced minority protection regimes. The system combines territorial autonomy with several language rights and elements of consociationalism,[2] which protect the German- and Ladin-speaking groups, providing them with access to power while fostering cooperation between the elites. Among the key elements foreseen by the Statute are:[3]

  • extensive political autonomy for the territory of South Tyrol (Province of Bolzano/Bozen), where German-speakers are actually in the majority;
  • proportional representation of the linguistic groups in legislative and executive government bodies in the province;
  • a type of veto power for the linguistic groups in matters regarding their vital interests;
  • a so-called ‘ethnic quota system’, namely the distribution of public employment and public resources among the linguistic groups in proportion to their numerical strength based on declared linguistic affiliation/aggregation (Italian, German, or Ladin);
  • a joint commission to implement the Statute, composed of an equal number of representatives of the State and the Province and of the Italian and German linguistic groups;[4]
  • mandatory bilingualism (trilingualism in Ladin areas) of public signs, toponyms, public documents, and public officials;
  • mother-tongue education and compulsory teaching of the other main language(s) spoken in South Tyrol, obtained through the creation of distinct school systems: Italian-language schools, German-language schools, and trilingual-schools in the Ladin valleys.

As I pointed out in the chapter I co-authored with Sergiu Constantin, this system sparked a variety of dynamics that have reduced ethnic tensions in the province. For example, it has relativized majority-minority relations, since the German-speaking group is actually the majority in the province, and it has guaranteed all language groups access to power and participation in the decision-making process while providing them with institutional equality. Moreover, in line with consociational theory, in providing a feeling of protection to the linguistic groups and encouraging the elites’ interethnic cooperation, South Tyrol’s institutional arrangements have fostered mutual trust which has trickled down to the society at large through the process of social learning.

As a result, South Tyrol is characterized today by peaceful cohabitation; long gone are the violent actions made in the name of claiming freedom and self-determination for South Tyrol and its population. Most of the German-speaking population has accepted living as a minority within Italy, though some political forces aiming at self-determination still persist. Also, a broadly positive social climate characterizes the province, where most inhabitants have accepted that they live in a multilingual society. According to a 2014 survey, only 7% of the population sees cohabitation as a problem; for 30.9% cohabitation is less problematic than in the past, and 35.1% see it as an enrichment. Moreover, a large segment of the South Tyrolean population describes cohabitation as either good (41.2%) or satisfactory (41.4%). About a quarter of the population has noticed improvements compared to previous years and has positive expectations for the future.

In particular, South Tyrol and its autonomy have shown that it is possible to de-securitize “the other” and ethnolinguistic diversity, in the sense of no longer seeing the other groups as a threat requiring emergency measures, therefore moving away from a way of thinking centred on a conflicting dichotomy of “us versus them.” For example, for decades now there has been no mention of the “Death March” (Todesmarsch) an expression coined in the 1950s to refer to the danger of Italian immigration to the province and to the demographic weight of the German-speaking group. In most political discourse, a positive image of diversity (of Italian, German and Ladin linguistic groups) prevails; such diversity is seen as allowing South Tyrol to be a bridge between the Italian and German cultural worlds (for more information on the processes of de-securitization in South Tyrol, see my other works here and here). More specifically, research shows that the majority of the South Tyrolean population increasingly sees multilingualism and cultural diversity (of Italian, German, and Ladin linguistic groups) as an advantage, and today very few people have negative attitudes in this regard. The percentage of people who believe that the presence of multiple linguistic groups in South Tyrol is enriching or can be enriching under certain conditions has risen from 58.6% in 1991 to 77.9% in 2014. Additionally, in a 2014 survey, 72.6% of the population believes that knowing one or more languages is personally enriching and 45.7% consider it an advantage. The vast majority of the population believes that knowing a second language is particularly important for living together harmoniously, as well as being important or fairly important in general.

Recently, this process of de-securitization even seems to be leading towards public disinterest in issues dealing with relations between linguistic groups. In fact, according to a 2022 survey, the majority of the South Tyrolean population believe that a lot has already been done for the protection of minorities and the coexistence of linguistic groups, or that these issues are not important. Instead, it is necessary to worry about other practical issues such as housing costs or the healthcare system. Rather than issues concerning minority rights and/or intergroup relations, most attention is given to the Province’s power vis-à-vis the State. Politicians usually raise this issue. It remains to be seen how this concern will develop with the new Italian government of Giorgia Meloni, whose right-wing nationalist party, Fratelli d’Italia, has traditionally advocated a centralizing approach to the governance of the State.

Consequently, with its second Statute of Autonomy, South Tyrol is generally considered by scholars, practitioners, and politicians as a model for dealing with and resolving ethnic tensions. It is used as an example for a variety of contexts, from Bosnia & Herzegovina to Tibet and Iraq. More recently, it has been taken into consideration in regard to Ukraine; this was already so at the time of the first tensions in Donbas and again with Russia’s current military aggression (even if it should be clear that the war is related to geostrategic interests rather than Moscow’s genuine interest in the Russian-speaking minority).

However, it might be misleading to take South Tyrol’s autonomy as a toolkit that can be exported elsewhere. Indeed, as pointed out by various scholars (e.g. Larin and Röggla; de Villiers), its success depends on a variety of local, national, and international factors, such as the fact that the German- and Ladin-speaking communities are territorially concentrated, the fact that tensions in South Tyrol did not reach a high level of violence, as well as the role of Austria as a kin-state. Moreover, besides linguistic divisions, the language groups share a common Catholic tradition, which has facilitated cooperation between the political elites. Finally, the role played by outstanding political leaders such as Silvius Magnago and Alcide Berloffa, who fostered a successful and peaceful solution, should be stressed, as well as the remarkable economic prosperity that has characterized the province in the past few decades, which makes “sufficient resources available and prevents ethnic competition in economic terms.”

Moreover, the success of the South Tyrolean system has limits and some problems remain. Indeed, the consociational elements of the Statute are based on the recognition that there are three distinct linguistic groups and this has somehow crystalized and entrenched the linguistic divisions within the South Tyrolean population. Each linguistic group has created its own organizations (such as political parties, trade unions, youth and sport associations, and mass media) and intergroup contacts are still limited, additionally because most of the Italian-speakers live in urban areas, especially the capital Bolzano/Bozen. Thereby, although a common territorial sense of belonging is slowly emerging, South Tyroleans have a different sense of identity between the linguistic groups. Moreover, parts of the South Tyrolean population, especially Italian speakers, still express a sense of grievance, thinking that their linguistic group is disadvantaged in various sectors of public life such as the labour market; though this feeling has been decreasing over time. The discomfort expressed by the Italian linguistic group has been labelled the disagio degli italiani (‘unease of Italians’). Despite official bilingualism and compulsory teaching of the second language (Italian or German) in schools, many in South Tyrol (especially within the Italian-speaking group) have limited knowledge of the second language and among South Tyrolean students this knowledge has decreased in the past few years. Finally, there is a linguistic division in politics, with the German-speaking population voting mainly for the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP), an ethnic catch-all party that has dominated South Tyrolean political life since the end of World War II, or alternatively for minor German-speaking right-wing nationalist parties claiming right to self-determination for South Tyrol, like Süd-Tiroler Freiheit. The Italian-speaking group has tended to divide its vote between centre/centre-left parties and right-wing nationalist parties, which have been traditionally strong in South Tyrol since the 1980s, though in the past decade these have lost appeal in favour of the Lega. It remains to be seen whether Giorgia Meloni’s victory at the national level will revitalize right-wing nationalist parties in the province as well. At times, some politicians still play the ethnic card as well as raise polemics about ethnic issues.

Additionally, the Statute does not address the specific demographic reality of South Tyrol and its transformation. Indeed, it does not consider the children of interethnic couples, whose number is unknown and years ago were estimated at between 25,000 and 35,000 (around 5-7% of the population). While it may be theoretically easier for these people to become bilingual, in the past their situation led to many protests headed by Alexander Langer, who denounced the creation of “ethnic cages”(gabbie etniche/ethnische Käfige) in which South Tyroleans were forced to enmesh themselves. However, nowadays these protests seem to have subsided and interest in the issue has been lost. Furthermore, since the 1990s South Tyrol has witnessed the arrival of people coming from foreign countries, which today represent about 10% of the resident population. Thus, we might ask how migrants are integrated into the linguistic divisions foreseen by the South Tyrol system, and how their interests and needs intersect with such distinctions between the linguistic groups.

However, linguistic divisions seem to be slowly diminishing. Indeed, over the past decades South Tyrol has experienced increasing interaction and cooperation between the South Tyrolean elites across the linguistic divide through interethnic initiatives by civil society. In this regard, the creation of ‘mixed’ cultural and academic institutions such as the trilingual (German, Italian, and English) Free University of Bozen-Bolzano and the research centre Eurac Research should be noted. Despite its disagio, the Italian-speaking group has learned to appreciate South Tyrol’s autonomy and most of its minority protection measures, and today values them greatly. Interethnic parties seem to be on the rise as well, like the Green Party (Verdi-Grüne-Verc) and the newly founded Team K.

To conclude, the 50th anniversary of the second Statute of Autonomy of South Tyrol does not give us a ready-made solution to ethnic conflicts which can be exported somewhere else. Rather, it is a reminder that fostering peaceful cohabitation between different languages and cultures and between majorities and minorities is possible, and that such a task is a constant work in progress.


[1] According to the last census (2011), 69.4% of the South Tyrolean population belonged to or was aggregated with the German-speaking group, 26.1% to the Italian-speaking group, and 4.5% to the Ladin group.

[2] First elaborated by Arend Lijphart, the concept of consociationalism refers to a series of institutional mechanisms (e.g. grand coalition, mutual veto, proportionality and segmental autonomy) considered adapt to govern and foster peace in societies deeply divided along religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic or regional lines.

[3] For further information and details on the second Statute of Autonomy see here.

[4] In 2017, a new regulation has introduced the possibility to have representatives of the Ladin community.

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