Italy’s German-speaking province makes U-turn on scrapping Italian name

In 2018, a South Tyrol separatist party organized a banner campaign in Vienna to thank Austrian government for the possibility of receiving a dual-citizenship. [EPA-EFE/WIESER]

The local government of the Italian autonomous province Alto Adige/Südtirol had to step back and change a law that would have removed the term ‘Alto Adige’ from its Brussels office, as the attempt nearly led the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

A draft provincial law meant to reorganise the Brussels office of the administrative entity proposed replacing the term ‘Alto Adige’ with ‘autonomous province of Bolzano’, linked to the name of the sub-region’s capital.

The name Alto Adige is considered part of a fascist heritage by the main separatist party Süd-Tiroler Freiheit, as it harks back to the policy of forced Italianisation of the former Austrian South Tyrol county, annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1919 after World War I.

Under Benito Mussolini’s rule, German local names and public inscriptions were forcibly renamed while German newspapers were censored and the German language was banished by the public service, although roughly 90% of local residents were German speakers at the time.

The name change proposed by the separatist party was included in the draft law voted in the Bolzano Provincial Council on Friday (11 October) and was also backed by the centre-right ruling party Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP), a member of the European’s People Party (EPP).

However, Article 116 of the Italian Constitution, as amended in 2001, calls the autonomous province of Bolzano ‘Alto Adige/Südtirol’, meaning that the double name must be used equally and without distinction.

After the vote, the province’s president, Arno Kompatscher, said it would be a slur if Italy’s government were to declare the law unconstitutional.

But the Italian Minister for Regional Affairs Francesco Boccia, threatened to challenge the law before the Constitutional Court, leading the Province Council to take a step back and change the law.

Kompatscher eventually waved the white flag, hinting that in the future, the local government cannot rule on this sensitive topic by using majority vote, as the issue triggered a wave of heated debate and drew harsh criticism all across Italy.

Opposition counsellor Alessandro Urzì, who brought the topic to the general public’s attention, said that this kind of attitude is not anti-fascist but anti-Italian.

Even former European Parliament President Antonio Tajani jumped into the debate: “It is not up to the Bolzano Provincial Council to decide how an Italian region should be called,” he told ANSA news agency.

Others also pointed out that the contested draft law presents another source of tensions between local and central government, as Article 4 seems to open up the possibility for physicians that speak only German and no Italian to register themselves in South Tyrol’s medical registrar.

Although German is officially equal to Italian in the region, medical doctors, as well as public servants and members of any other professional orders, need to speak both languages if they practice in the province.

Currently, almost two-thirds of the province’s inhabitants are native German speakers, while the number of Italian speakers decreased by 15% since the 1970s.

As a minority, German speakers are protected by the Italian Constitution and are entitled to a certain number of national and European lawmakers to represent their concerns.

For instance, influential Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann, group coordinator for the EPP at the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee (AGRI), comes from South Tyrol and addresses the plenary and his committee in German.

Alto Adige/Südtirol joined forces in Brussels with Austria’s Tyrol and Italy’s Trentino in establishing a Euroregion in 1998 that promotes cross-border cooperation when it comes to tourism, infrastructure, social services and environmental issues.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Sam Morgan]

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