South Tyrol: 50 Years of Power-Sharing and Federal-like Relations

Laurie Buonanno and Neill Nugent

Laurie Buonanno is a Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Buffalo State College, State University of New York (SUNY) and Director of the Institute for European Union Studies at SUNY. Her latest (co-authored) book is Remembering Italian America: Memory, Migration, Identity (Routledge, 2021). She is co-author with Neill Nugent of Policies and Policy Processes of the European Union, 2nd Ed. (Bloomsbury/Red Globe Press, 2021).

 

Neill Nugent is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He has published widely on the European Union, including The Government and Politics of the European Union, now in its eighth edition (Bloomsbury/Red Globe Press, 2017). In 2013, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary European Studies by the University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES).

Abstract

South Tyrol’s autonomy is based on a dissociative conflict resolution model and, building on this, on a consociational democracy. Power-sharing takes place at the horizontal level between the three officially recognised language groups, Germans, Italians, and Ladins, and primarily concerns the proportional distribution of power influence and resources. The cooperation of elites corresponds to the ethnic separation of the language groups in many institutional and social areas. At the vertical level, there is formal and informal quasi-federal cooperation between Bolzano/Bozen and Rome, with Austria playing a relevant role as the protecting power for South Tyrol. Known as a success story, in recent times South Tyrol’s autonomy faces challenges that concern the overcoming of the dissociative model and the adaptation of its consociational democracy to changing demographics and to dynamics in Italian and European constitutional politics.

Basic Facts and Data*

In 2022, South Tyrol’s autonomy turns 50. Back in 1972, South Tyrol’s Autonomy Statute (ASt)[1] entered into force and paved the way for turning negative peace (i.e. the absence of violence) into positive peace (i.e. the creation of a social system that serves the needs of the whole population) (Galtung 1964, p. 2). From a comparative viewpoint (Lecours 2021), South Tyrol is a success story, even though on the ground “living apart in the same room” (Carlà 2007) is still the rule for many and the limits of corporate consociationalism (Carlà 2018) are not yet widely discussed.

Formerly part of the Habsburg empire, South Tyrol was forcibly annexed to Italy in 1920. With the advent of fascism, the predominantly German- and Ladin speaking territory of 7.400 km² (ASTAT 2020a, p. 6) underwent Italianization. In 1946, Italy and Austria concluded the Paris Agreement, a bilateral treaty for the protection of the German-speaking minority, the basis of today’s autonomy of Italy’s northernmost subnational entity. Several decades of negotiations (Alber 2017) culminated in the entry into force of the ASt in 1972 that provides the creation of a constitutionally entrenched power-sharing system and federal-alike relations between South Tyrol and Rome.

As of 31 December 2020, South Tyrol’s population amounts to 533.715 inhabitants (ASTAT 2021). It is home to Italy’s best-protected linguistic minorities, the German and the Ladin speakers, and to people from 138 countries (ASTAT 2020b). According to the last census in 2011 (ASTAT 2020a, p. 15), German speakers (or persons affiliating to the German language group) make up 69,01 percent, while the other two language groups, Italian and Ladin (including persons affiliating to one of these language groups) make up 26,06 and 4,53 per cent, respectively. Declaring his or her language group or affiliating to one language group is the key to fully benefit from South Tyrol’s system. In other words, the numerical strength of German-, Italian- and Ladin-speakers is the foundation upon which South Tyrol’s power-sharing system rests. That system consists of a complex network of norms, guarantees and legal remedies that provides the separation and forced (elites’) cooperation of the major language groups German and Italian in South Tyrol’s bilingual public sphere (Alber 2021; Chiocchetti 2021). Special rules and trilingualism apply to the Ladin language group, and to public administration and the education system in the two Ladin valleys.

 

Horizontal Power-sharing: The Relations between Groups in South Tyrol

The ASt provides a system of horizontal power-sharing that combines elements of cultural and territorial self-government. It allows the preservation of the socio-linguistic identities while fostering intergroup (elites’) dialogue and cooperation.

 

The four elements of the model

First, the participation of all relevant language groups in provincial government and in the different subordinated sub-systems. All language groups represented in the provincial parliament are proportionally represented in the provincial government according to their numerical strength (the deputies must submit a declaration of language group affiliation before the provincial election). Special rules apply to the Ladins. Proportional representation applies to all public representative bodies (e.g. municipalities).

Second, there is decision-making autonomy for the main language groups in matters that are not of common interest. This means group-related independent administrations, most importantly in sectors such as culture and education.

Third, there exists proportional representation of each language group in the public sphere. Ethnic proportionality provides that all public jobs are distributed in proportion to the strength of the language groups in the most recent census. Proportionality is also applied in the composition of local organs of public bodies, and in the distribution of finances. Proportional representation also affects the legislature, based on elections, as well as the executive and judiciary sector. A prerequisite for access to posts in public administration is bilingualism (trilingualism in the case of the posts relevant to Ladin interests). This means that the system turns competition between language groups into competition within the respective language group, to prevent economic and social conflicts from being transformed into ethnic ones.

Fourth, veto power for each language group to defend vital group interests in the provincial parliament. The majority of members belonging to a language group may trigger an ‘alarm-bell procedure’ if they consider a draft law prejudicial to the quality of right between citizens belonging to different language groups or to the ethnic or cultural characteristics of the groups themselves (art. 56 of the ASt). This procedure is not equivalent to an absolute veto right, but it can end in front of the Italian constitutional court.

 

The model in practice

South Tyrol’s proportional system has led to asymmetries in the distribution of power and resources due to social and political changes in recent times (on all this, Pallaver 2014). If the political system is to continue to be regarded as legitimate and accepted by all language groups, more flexibility and reforms are necessary. A few examples illustrate what is meant.

The principle of maximum involvement of all language groups in decision-making processes has shifted in favour of the German language group, with the Italian population being underrepresented. This occurs because ethnic but not political proportional representation has been observed for many years in government to fulfill the coalition requirement enshrined in art. 50 of the ASt (i.e. access of all language groups to power in government according to the numerical strength of the language groups represented in the provincial parliament).

Decision-making of the language groups in their own affairs is subject to and affected by the majority principle that rules decision-making in the provincial government (with a majority of German speakers). This leads to frictions in day-to-day policymaking.

Proportional representation in public administration is in tension with the meritocratic principle. For certain occupational profiles the meritocratic principle, however, prevails, not least out of necessity. In addition, the need for bilingualism is an obstacle to attract highly specialized persons. More in general, in the logic of proportional representation, the larger the German language group becomes, the fewer resources Italians and Ladins are entitled to. Results from the 2021 census in October will show whether the numerical strength of German-, Italian- and Ladin-speakers will significantly differ from the data collected in 2011 (see above) and, if so, to what extent that prompts discussions on the functioning of the quota system.

The veto right of each language group in the end is a blunt weapon. It requires a two-thirds majority of the deputies of the same language group represented in the provincial parliament. The Italian language group has tried to use it several times but failed because it does not appear as a homogeneous, corporate group due to the strong party fragmentation. It thus has never achieved the two-thirds majority in the provincial parliament (Pallaver 2018, pp. 21-22, 29).

 

Vertical Power-sharing: The Relations between South Tyrol and Rome, and Austria

South Tyrol’s design of the process of implementation has been defined as the legal masterpiece of the ASt (Palermo 2008, p. 143): It consists of a complex mix of procedural rules and substantial guarantees that represent one of the possible tools for export of South Tyrol’s autonomy.

 

The Commission of Six

The process of implementation of the ASt, in essence, involves all institutional actors (i.e. central and provincial authorities) and language groups, with an appointed expert body named Commission of Six as the main body that drafts the bylaws to the ASt (i.e. enactment decrees that prevail over laws of the national parliament, also in the interpretative line consistently followed by the constitutional court).

Although it was foreseen that the Commission of Six would cease to exist once the ASt is implemented (thus after 1992 when the conflict was formally closed at UN level), it continued to work. It has evolved from a tool for the implementation of the ASt into an ordinary instrument of government that builds trust and solves conflicts between language groups/political parties within South Tyrol, and between provincial and central authorities (in South Tyrol and in Rome).

Depending on the political climate at the national level, the Commission of Six continues to regulate competence-transfers from Rome to South Tyrol with varying degrees of success in different legislatures. This means that the scope of South Tyrol’s autonomy, unlike that of other special regions, today goes well beyond the enumerated competences in the ASt (i.e. those closely linked to the implementation of the minority-related horizontal power-sharing system at provincial level). Eurostat data (2019) shows that South Tyrol uses this scope well. When compared to other regions, South Tyrol’s economy is well-off: It has one of the best performing labor markets in Europe, is ranked among the 25 richest regions in Europe and with Aosta it also has the highest GDP per capita within Italy.

 

Constitutionally entrenched safeguards

The procedure to amend the ASt provides a further strong safeguard for minority-related issues. The State cannot alter South Tyrol’s autonomy against its own will (i.e. against the consent of its majority population, the German speakers): If projects for amendments to the ASt are initiated by the central authorities, the regional and provincial parliaments – the two autonomous provinces of Trento and of Bolzano/Bozen (South Tyrol) together form the autonomous region Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, one out of five special regions in Italy[2] – must be consulted. Their opinion is not legally binding, but of major political relevance. Moreover, no national referendum can be held on the amendment of the ASt of special regions. Specific to the case of South Tyrol, the result of a nationwide referendum would undermine the institutional machinery of minority protection and contradict the rationale of the constitutional principles of speciality and bilateralism.

South Tyrol, for its part, cannot initiate an amendment procedure of the ASt without the consent of the autonomous province of Trento as the right to do so is vested with the regional council (i.e. the provincial councils of Bolzano/Bozen and Trento sitting together).[3] Put simply, the two autonomous provinces have different political systems, but they are tied together by the same ASt that essentially lays down three sets of provisions: one applying to the predominantly Italian-speaking Trentino, another one applying to trilingual South Tyrol, and a minor set of provisions applying to the autonomous region as a whole (i.e. to the territories of South Tyrol and Trentino taken together).

 

South Tyrol as the tip of the scales

An example that gives further proof of South Tyrol’s federal-like relations to Rome is the following: Due to the strong fragmentation of the Italian party system during the Second Republic (thus since 1993), narrow political majorities in the national parliament are the rule. The South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP), as the dominant representation of South Tyrol in Rome, has been repeatedly relevant for obtaining majorities. Put simply, it has continued to play out its coalition potential for implementing and enhancing South Tyrol’s autonomy. By doing so, the SVP has always rejected offers to join the government on the grounds that this would impair or prejudice the potential possibility of the right to external self-determination.

 

Paradiplomacy

Austria plays a non-relevant role in relations with Rome, that with the Paris Agreement renounced part of its full sovereignty over South Tyrol. Austria has a say in minority issues and exercises a protective function in favour of the German and Ladin speakers. It has always been customary for South Tyrol’s MPs in Rome to meet once a month with the Austrian ambassador and to exchange ideas. The governor of South Tyrol and a delegation of the SVP also regularly meet with the Austrian government and the Austrian federal president in Vienna. A sub-committee on South Tyrol has been set up in the foreign affairs committee of the Austrian parliament too. In addition, Austria intervenes at South Tyrol’s request with the government in Rome, rarely formally, mostly informally, and usually successfully (Massl/Pallaver 2010, pp. 271-273).

 

Conclusion and Prospects

As this contribution has shown, South Tyrol is one of the most regulated examples of co-existence between different language groups with a power-sharing system that unfolds horizontally at the provincial and regional levels and vertically in relation to the State. The autonomy arrangements that have been established do not have precedent in other Italian constituent units, making South Tyrol a “quasi-federal entity” (Woelk 2013, p. 126) in Italy’s “incomplete federal democracy” (Burgess 2012, p. 237) that continues to advance a “schizophrenic set of reforms that are gradually dismantling the logic of the constitution of 1948” (Palermo 2021; see also Pallaver/Brunazzo 2017).

The political system of South Tyrol is based on the dissociative conflict resolution model, a model that assumes the formal and informal separation of language groups across policy fields and in the public sphere. The consociational democracy based on this, in turn, assumes that cooperation is undertaken at the level of elites with power and resources being distributed in a proportional manner. This model has seen positive progresses over the last 50 years, guaranteeing the peaceful coexistence of and cooperation within the language groups, leaving the period of unrest in the 1950s and 1960s behind.

That is the merit of the indisputable stability of its governing party, the ethnic catch-all SVP representing German and Ladin interests, ruling without interruptions since 1948 (Pallaver 2017). On the one side, the SVP negotiated South Tyrol’s autonomy arrangements across levels of government. On the other side, the SVP has continued negotiations over the scope of South Tyrol’s autonomy also after 1992, the year in which the UN acknowledged that the power-sharing system enshrined in the 1972 ASt has been put in practice.

The success of South Tyrol’s autonomy has been favoured by the European integration process too. After the accession of Austria into the EU in 1995, South Tyrol’s authorities and stakeholders have increasingly worked for the institutionalization of European cross-border cooperation. The approval of the EU regulation on the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC)[4] in 2006 paved the way for the creation of the EGTC ‘European Region Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino’ in 2011, a public body with legal personality under European and national public law whose members, the Austrian Land Tyrol and the two autonomous provinces Bolzano/Bozen and Trento, can cooperate in all areas in which they are assigned competences.

The European integration process has, however, also contributed to the profound transformation of South Tyrol’s society. Ever more parts of the society are calling for more integration between language groups. Hence, the logics of dissociative conflict resolution with ethnic separation grounded in the logics of proportionality is challenged. To prevent distribution-conflicts and to continue to guarantee the peaceful coexistence of all (German-, Italian-, Ladin-speakers, and migrants), courageous reforms are needed. The dissociative conflict resolution model must be turned into an associative one. For this to happen, consociational arrangements must become more flexible and the logics behind the proportional distribution of resources and power influence must be revised by giving the meritocratic principle much more weight, not least to secure South Tyrol’s role as one of the most prosperous European border areas.

 

* Regarding terminology, please note three issues. First, the term South Tyrol is used synonymously with the official designation of the same territory (autonomous province of Bolzano/Bozen). Second, the term State refers to the central level of government. Third, ItConst stands for Italian Constitution. All websites in this paper have been last accessed on 25 August 2021.

[1] The ASt of 1972 (adopted by constitutional law no. 1/1971) is referred to as Second ASt. However, from a formal viewpoint, no new statute had been adopted in 1972. Out of the 137 legislative measures over 80 were amendments to the ASt of 1948 (referred to as First ASt). In 1948, the Italian parliament, by constitutional law, granted autonomy at the regional level: competences were transferred from the centre to the special region Trentino-South Tyrol [composed of the autonomous province of Trento and the autonomous province of Bolzano/Bozen (South Tyrol)]. By doing so, Italy considered the international obligations enshrined in the Paris Agreement, that is the 1946 Gruber – De Gasperi Agreement (Annex IV of the Paris Peace Treaty), to be fulfilled (i.e. guaranteeing the “complete equality of rights with the Italian-speaking inhabitants” and safeguarding “the ethnic character and the cultural and economic development of the German-speaking element”). At the regional level, however, Italian speakers were the majority, and the interests of South Tyrol’s German-speakers were easily outvoted.

[2] Italy consists of 15 ordinary and 5 special regions, with the special regions Trentino-South Tyrol, Aosta Valley, Sardinia and Sicily being established already in 1948 (Friuli-Venezia Giulia in 1963). The ordinary regions, instead, were established only in the 1970s, with further significant changes regarding their scope of autonomy occurring by ordinary legislation in the late 1990s and by a series of constitutional laws in 2001. Up to 2001, ordinary regions could only legislate in subjects enumerated in the ItConst and only within the framework outlined by a national law. Conversely, special regions (and thus also South Tyrol as one of the two autonomous provinces forming one special region) were vested with a broad scope of autonomy, with the respective legislative and often exclusive competences laid down in autonomy statutes (that, unlike the statutes of ordinary regions, are a constitutional law).

[3] Noteworthy is the fact that in 2016-2017 an Autonomy Convention, a consultative participatory “constitution-making” process involved the larger public in the elaboration of a proposal as to how to revise the ASt. A similar process was carried out in the autonomous province of Trento. The processes were concluded in September 2017 and March 2018, respectively, with the handover of all results to the provincial councils of South Tyrol and Trentino. No further institutional steps have, however, been taken since then to work with the results at political level and to initiate the revision of the ASt (Alber/Röggla/Ohnewein 2018).

[4] Regulation (EC) no. 1082/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 on the EGTC, Official Journal L 210, 31 July 2006.

Alber, E. and Pallaver, G. 2021. ‘South Tyrol: 50 Years of Power-Sharing and Federal-like Relations‘, 50 Shades of Federalism

Bibliography

Alber, E. (2017). South Tyrol’s Negotiated Autonomy. Journal of Ethnic Studies, June 2017, no. 78, 41-48

Alber, E./Röggla, M./Ohnewein, V. (2018). Autonomy Convention‘ and ‚Consulta‘: Deliberative Democracy in Subnational Minority Contexts, In: European Centre for Minority Issues and Eurac Research,eds., European Yearbook of Minority Issues. Leiden-Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 195-228.

Alber, E. (2021). South Tyrol’s Model of Conflict Resolution: Territorial Autonomy and Power-Sharing, in Power-Sharing in Europe, edited by Sören Keil and Allison McCulloch. 171-199. Palgrave macmillan.

ASTAT (Provincial Statistics Institute) (2020a). South Tyrol in Figures 2019.

ASTAT (Provincial Statistics Institute) (2020b): Ausländische Wohnbevölkerung 2019, info n. 43, 7/2020

ASTAT (Provincial Statistics Institute) (2021): Bevölkerungsentwicklung (vorläufige Daten), info n. 40, 7/2021

Burgess, M. (2012). In Search of the Federal Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carlà, Andrea (2007). Living apart in the same room: analysis of the management of linguistic diversity in Bolzano. Ethnopolitics (Formerly Global Review of Ethnopolitics) 6 (2), 285-313.

Carla, Andrea (2018). Peace in South Tyrol and the Limits of Consociationalism. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Vol. 24(3), 251-275.

Chiocchetti, E. (2021). Effects of social evolution on terminology policy in South Tyrol. Terminology. International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Issues in Specialized Communication, Vol.27, Issue 1, Jul 2021, 110 – 139.

Eurostat (2019). Regional GDP per capita ranged from 31% to 626% of the EU average in 2017. Newsrelease 26 Febraruy 2019.

Galtung, J. (1964). An Editorial. Journal of Peace Research, 1 (1) 1-4.

Lecours, A. (2020). Nationalism and the strength of secessionism in Western Europe: Static and dynamic autonomy. International Political Science Review. November 2020.

Massl, M./Pallaver, G. (2010). Interessenswahrnehmung selbständiger Landesparteien – Die Rolle der Südtiroler Volkspartei im römischen Parlament. In: Oberhofer, J./Sturm, R., eds., Koalitionsregierungen in den Ländern und Parteienwettbewerb (Schriftenreihe des Zentralinstituts für Regionalforschung der Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, vol. 6). München: allitera verlag, 251-276

Palermo, F. (2021). Two Almost Identical Chambers Doing the Same Job Twice: On the lowering of the voting age and the lack of a constitutional strategy in Italy, VerfBlog, 2021/7/13

Palermo, F. (2008). Implementation and Amendment of the Autonomy Statute. In Woelk, J. et al., eds., Tolerance Through Law: Self Governance and Group Rights in South Tyrol. Leiden Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 143–159

Pallaver, G. (2014). South Tyrol’s changing political system: from dissociative on the road to associative conflict resolution’. Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, Special Section: Minority Politics and the Territoriality Principle in Europe, 42(3), 376-398

Pallaver, G. (2017). The Südtiroler Volkspartei. Success through conflict, failure through Consensus. In: Mazzoleni, O./Mueller, S., eds., Regionalist Parties in Western Europe. Dimensions of Success. London/New York: Routledge, 107-134

Pallaver, G. (2018): Südtirols Parteien. Analysen, Trends und Perspektiven. Edition Raetia: Bozen.

Pallaver, G./Brunazzo, M. (2017). Italy: The Pendulum of “Federal” Regionalism. In: Karlhofer, F./Pallaver, G., eds., Federal Power-Sharing in Europe. Nomos: Baden-Baden, 149-180

Woelk, J. (2013). South Tyrol is (not) Italy: A Special Case in a (De)federalizing system. L’Europe en Formation, 3/2013, no. 369, 126-137

Main legal sources

Constitutional Law No. 5/1948 – Legge costituzionale del 26 febbraio 1948, n. 5 “Statuto speciale per il Trentino-Alto Adige” [Constitutional law no. 5 of 26 February 1948 ‘Special Statute for Trentino – Alto Adige’ – First ASt]. www.gazzettaufficiale.it/eli/id/1948/03/13/048C0005/sg (in Italian)

Constitutional Law No. 3/2001 – Legge costituzionale del 18 ottobre 2001, n. 3 “Modifiche al titolo V della parte seconda della Costituzione” [Constitutional law no. 3 of 18 October 2001 ‘Amendments to title V of part two of the Constitution’]. www.gazzettaufficiale.it/eli/id/2001/10/24/001G0430/sg (in Italian)

Gruber–De Gasperi Agreement, signed in Paris on 5 September 1946 (Paris Agreement) history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1946v04/d297

Presidential Decree No. 670/1972 – Decreto del Presidente della Repubblica del 31 agosto 1972, n. 670 “Approvazione del testo unico delle leggi costituzionali concernenti lo Statuto speciale per il Trentino – Alto Adige” [Presidential decree no. 670 of 31 August 1972 ‘Approval of the consolidated text of the constitutional laws concerning the Special Statute for Trentino – Alto Adige’ – Second ASt]. www.gazzettaufficiale.it/eli/id/1972/11/20/072U0670/sg (in Italian) and www.autonomyexperience.org/en/south-tyrol/#autonomie (in English)

Further Reading

Alber, E. (2021). South Tyrol’s Model of Conflict Resolution: Territorial Autonomy and Power-Sharing, in Power-Sharing in Europe, edited by Sören Keil and Allison McCulloch. 171-199. Palgrave macmillan.

Alber, E./Zwilling, C. (2021). South Tyrol, in the Online Compendium World Autonomies – Autonomy Arrangements in the World, edited by Eurac Research et al.

Parolari, S./Zwilling, C. (2018). A Bibliography on the Autonomy of South Tyrol. Eurac Research: Bozen.

Woelk, J./Palermo, F. & Marko, J. (eds.) (2008): Tolerance Through Law – Self-Governance and Group Rights in South Tyrol. Leiden – Boston: Martinus Nijhoff/Brill.

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