by Letizia Binda-Partensky(ICD Programme Coordinator)
Researcher Elisabeth Abler of the Institute for Federalism and Regionalism of the European Academy in Bolzano discusses the special statute constitutional status of the linguistically and culturally diverse autonomous province of Südtirol/Alto-Adige. She recounts the path to the constitutional accommodation of historically co-existing identities. Listen to the Interview
‘Alto-Adige’ is the Italian denomination of ‘Südtirol.’ For an Italian speaker, this territory lies above the Adige; for a German speaker, it extends below the Tyrol. Its population is made up of 69% German speakers, 26% Italians and 4% Ladin – a group inhabiting two valleys of the Dolomite Mountains – and it enjoys territorial self-governance. The province enjoys a particular autonomous status which distinguishes it from any other in the country.
Italy is a regionalized state made up of fifteen ordinary regions and five special regions. ‘Alto-Adige’ is part of the ‘Trentino/Alto-Adige’ region, the only instance in Italy in which the legislative competences were transferred from the region to its two constituent provinces.
The current autonomy statute enshrines parity between German and Italian. It has constitutional rank, based on a bilateral agreement between Rome and Bolzano/Bozen: in practice, this means that Standing Committees are in charge of the implementation of the Statute. The Commission of Six is the forum of experts for South Tyrol where relevant legal measures are adopted. It allows for a “dynamic autonomy”, capable of responding to changing socio-economic situations efficiently.
South Tyrol’s history in a nutshell: In 1919, Italy acquired from Austria the territories surrounding the city of Trento – predominantly Italian — and those that stretch below the Brenner, predominantly Austrian. The population was already very mixed; alongside the three linguistic groups accommodated, as much as 7% of people had immigration backgrounds. As Fascism was rising, the Italian government launched an assimilation policy: Austrian schools were prohibited and the denomination ‘Südtirol’ banned.
With the end of the Second World War came the Gruber-Degasperi Agreement, an annex to the Italian Peace Treaty giving the South Tyrolean question international standing. After lengthy negotiations between Italy and Austria, the inhabitants of Trentino and Alto-Adige/Südtirol were granted the Second Autonomy Statute in 1972 with special provisions for the Autonomous Province of Bolzano/Bozen. It establishes a system of group rights that applies to everyday life in South Tyrol. The system is based on the declaration of affiliation to a language group and results in an ethnic quota system aiming at the preservation of the German (and Ladin) language and culture. German and Italian language is parified in public offices, schooling offered in mother tongue, finances are distributed proportionally.
An ethnic proportional representation quota system regulates the employment of personnel in bilingual public offices; employees must be trilingual in Ladin areas; and, above all, citizens can choose school systems freely. By contrast, in the (much more densely populated) francophone province of Quebec in Canada, French has been imposed on potential immigrants since the 1990s. South Tyroleans are hence enabled—through re-fashioned and tweaked legal system—to determine their own identities. A ground-breaking path to a ‘half-spaghetti, half-knödel’ governance!
J. Woelk, F. Palermo and J. Marko (eds.), Tolerance through Law – Self Governance and Group Rights in South Tyrol, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden/Boston, 2008.
 According to 2001 census. From Elisabeth Alber, South Tyrol’s education system: plurilingual answers to monolinguistic spheres? 4e Congrès international du réseau francophone des associations de sciences politique, 20-22 avril 2011, Bruxelles. (Draft version)