The Diplomatic Row between Italy and Austria over Vienna’s Draft Laws on Dual Nationality and Consular Assistance for German- and Ladin-speaking South Tyroleans

German-speakers in the Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano – Alto Adige (Autonomous Province Bolzano – South Tyrol, hereinafter “South Tyrol”) constitute 69.6% of the total population of the Province, the rest belonging to the Italian (25.8%) and Ladin (4.5%) ethno-linguistic groups.[1] South Tyrol enjoys a high level of self-government and fiscal autonomy, according to Article 6 of the Italian Constitution,[2] the provisions of the 1946 Accordo De Gasperi – Gruber (De Gasperi – Gruber Agreement) between Italy and Austria,[3] also known as Paris Agreement, and the 1972 second Autonomy Statute for South Tyrol.[4] Under the Paris Agreement, in particular, Austria exercises a protective function for South Tyrol, historically monitoring progress towards the attainment of autonomy by the Province. To this extent, in 1960, Austria submitted the question of the implementation of South Tyrol’s autonomy to the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN). The dispute was settled on 19 June 1992, by means of a discharge issued by both States before the UN, after all the measures that make South Tyrol’s autonomy a unique model of minorities’ protection had been enacted.[5]

Against this background, in 2017, the decision of the Austrian Government to support a reform of its domestic legislation favoring the acquisition of dual citizenship by German and Ladin South-Tyroleans became a significant source of tension between the two neighboring countries. Indeed, the debate on the attribution of the Austrian citizenship to South Tyroleans can be traced back to at least a decade before. Since 2006, the autonomist party Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP – South Tyrolean People’s Party) had lobbied for the attribution of Austrian citizenship to German-speaking South Tyroleans.[6] Already in 2009, a first draft law by the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ – Freedom Party of Austria),[7] although subsequently rejected by the Austrian Parliament, prompted a reaction by the Ministro degli Affari esteri e della Cooperazione internazionale (Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation), Mr Franco Frattini, who, in a diplomatic note transmitted to Vienna, defined the proposal as a “non-friendly gesture towards Italy”.[8] The proposal for a dual citizenship for South-Tyroleans was further discussed following a 2011 motion filed by the Consiglio della Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano (South Tyrol’s Council)[9] and a 2013 citizens’ initiative,[10] for which on 9 April 2014 the Austrian Parliament instituted an ad hoc subcommittee, the Südtirol Unterausschuss (South Tyrol Subcommittee), within the Außenpolitische Ausschuss (Foreign Affairs Committee).

In 2017, 19 South-Tyrolean Councilors sent a letter to the FPÖ and the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP – Austrian People’s Party) leaders, Mr Heinz Christian Strache and Mr Sebastian Kurz, claiming that “South Tyroleans have lost their Austrian citizenship with the involuntary annexation of South Tyrol by Italy. The regaining of citizenship would now be an act of reparation”,[11] thus securing the official support of the Freedom Party of Austria.

On 19 December 2017, the newly formed Austrian Government envisaged, in the program agreed upon by the two coalition parties, FPÖ and ÖVP, a “rethinking” of the Austrian citizenship legislation, providing, inter alia, for the attribution to German- and Ladin-speaking South Tyroleans of the right to acquire the Austrian citizenship in addition to their Italian citizenship.[12] In the same month, the Bundeskanzler der Republik Österreich (Federal Chancellor of the Republic of Austria), Mr Sebastian Kurz, announced that a bill on dual citizenship for South Tyroleans would be submitted to the Austrian Parliament. Meetings with Italian representatives were convened in January and March 2018, with members of the South Tyrol’s Provincial Council being also invited to the latter meeting.

On 7 March 2018, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Angelino Alfano, declared:

I have instructed our Ambassador in Austria not to attend the meeting convened on 23 March in Vienna on the proposal for a dual nationality for the German- and Ladin-speaking population of Alto Adige. As already reaffirmed to the Austrian colleague [Bundesministerin für Europa, Integration und Äußeres (Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs), Ms. Karin] Kneissl, on the occasion of the January meeting, any eventual discussion on the matter could not but take place between Rome and Vienna, and not also, on an equal level, with Bolzano, which is an Autonomous Province of the Italian Republic.[13]

The Ministro added that

The Italian position is well-known on the unfoundedness of the reasons brought forward by Vienna in defence of the dual nationality proposal which is inconsistent with the high levels of protection and development of minorities in South Tyrol, with existing bilateral relations, with Italy’s and Austria’s common membership in the EU and with international law. On the other hand, Vienna too recognizes the sensitivity of the dual nationality issue within the context of Alto Adige, where peaceful coexistence between different linguistic groups and an extraordinary socio-economic development are the fruit of the set-up designed under the De Gasperi – Gruber Agreement and are guaranteed by the Statute of Autonomy, a model widely appreciated worldwide which must be maintained. In this context, the proposal to grant dual nationality to the German and Ladin-speaking citizens of Alto Adige appears to be incomprehensible: it would risk having a heavy impact on the aforesaid positive context and undermine a history of success that is internationally recognized. We therefore expect a very deep reflection on the possible implications and we are ready to examine all possible ways of objecting to an act that would not be compliant with international law.

Mr Alfano further specified that

the recognition of the statute of autonomy, as well as the protection of linguistic minorities, are founding principles enshrined in our Constitution, together with – allow me to emphasize – the principle of the unity and indivisibility of the Italian State.[14]

In April 2018, the Austrian Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs declared that the bill was an unfinished draft and that it had mistakenly been sent to Parliament.[15] Nonetheless, members of the ÖVP announced that the new bill on consular protection offered Austrian consular assistance to South Tyroleans,[16] as part of the Austrian protective function over South Tyrol.[17] On 19 April 2018, Minister Alfano summarized the position of the Italian Government anew, defining the Austrian bill on consular protection for German- and Ladin-speaking South Tyroleans as

absolutely non-compliant with the EU regulations on European citizenship and consular matters and in complete violation of international law.

Minister Alfano continued:

For this reason, yesterday we mandated the Italian Ambassador in Vienna to submit a formal complaint to the Austrian Government on the cited bill on the basis of specific points of law.[18]

On the same day, the Austrian Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs informed the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation that the bill on South Tyrol had been withdrawn.[19] Minister Alfano expressed his satisfaction in the following terms:

We have learnt with satisfaction that the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has informed us that the bill on Alto Adige has been withdrawn and the legislative process has been stopped. […] Stopping this text is the right response to the commitment and readiness with which the Italian Foreign Ministry followed the case from the beginning. The decision taken today by the Austrian Government proves that cooperation between European countries is something to preserve with great care and equilibrium.

Following the general elections of March 2018, a new Government, led by Mr Giuseppe Conte as President of the Council of Ministers, with Mr Enzo Moavero Milanesi as Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, was formed in Italy and received the confidence vote of the Parliament at the beginning of June 2018. Albeit with different tones and nuances, the new Government maintained a strong critical stance towards the Austrian initiatives. Following the release of additional news by the Austrian press concerning an impending submission for review to the Austrian Parliament of a bill attributing Austrian citizenship to South Tyroleans,[20] on 22 July 2018, an official press release of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation confirmed that

the Minister of Foreign Affairs [and International Cooperation, Mr] Enzo Moavero Milanesi has asked the Italian Ambassador to Austria, [Mr] Sergio Barbanti, to obtain clarification from the Austrian authorities on reports according to which the Government would submit a bill to give Austrian citizenship to Italian citizens of Alto Adige next September. […] At the same time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has asked the Austrian embassy in Rome for clarification.[21]

The concluding phrase of the press release added:

If the reports are confirmed, the action would be considered inappropriate and substantially hostile, especially as Austria now holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.[22]

On 8 September 2018, upon confirmation by the Austrian authorities that a group of experts had been established in order to elaborate a bill aimed at conceding Austrian citizenship to German- and Ladin-speaking South Tyroleans, the Ministro per i Rapporti con il Parlamento e la Democrazia diretta (Minister for Parliamentary Relations and Direct Democracy), Mr Riccardo Fraccaro, declared:

every further step in this direction would inevitably lend itself to influencing the upcoming administrative elections in South Tyrol.[23]

Consistently, on 17 September 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation expressed the concern of the Government for the initiative’s disruptive potential on internal affairs, thereby noting that

It was once again explained that Austria’s possible unilateral initiative raises emotions in different segments of Italian public opinion and appears to be in and of itself particularly inopportune ahead of the elections in Alto Adige.[24]

The Ministry further announced that Minister Moavero Milanesi would not travel to Vienna for one of the usual bilateral meetings proposed by the Austrian Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs, Ms Karin Kneissl, due to the “Austrian intention to confer Austrian citizenship to German- and Ladin-speaking Italian citizens in South Tyrol”.[25] The official press release qualified the Austrian initiative as “potentially taking on the character of an anachronistic revanchism”.[26]

On 14 September 2018, a decidedly more conciliatory tone was adopted by the Ministro dell’Interno (Minister of the Interior), Mr. Matteo Salvini, who, in a joint press conference with the Austrian Vice Chancellor, Mr Heinz Christian Strache, affirmed that Austria and Italy would have certainly found “an agreement” on the dual passport, but added at the same time that “there will be no steps back or forth if one of the countries disagrees”.[27]

Subsequently, a motion approved by the Italian Parliament framed the issue in the light of a potential disrespect for the principle of equality of all citizens, which may be prompted by the Austrian dual citizenship proposal. On 27 September 2018 (51st Meeting, XVIII Legislature), the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies), with a favorable opinion by the Government, approved Motion No. 1/00047 (first signatories D’Uva and Molinari). The relevant part of the motion reads as follows:

[…] following the De Gasperi – Gruber Agreement of 1946, the socalled ‘autonomy package’ of Bolzano was approved by the Italian side, which […] led to the positive model – universally recognized as an example of cooperation and dialogue between linguistic groups – of South Tyrol. […] such a positive experience led to the definitive resolution of the dispute between Austria and Italy in the summer of 1992 within the UN, with the granting by Austria to Italy of the ‘discharge’ with which Vienna recognizes the complete fulfilment of the De Gasperi – Gruber Agreement; […] [the Chamber of Deputies] commits the Government: to reiterate, also within the European Union, the potential risks that the approval of the Austrian law on the granting of citizenship and passport to the citizens of South Tyrol could entail for the Italianspeaking population; to defend the model of autonomy and peaceful coexistence established in South Tyrol, which has roots that are typical and exclusive of this territory.

This comprehensive analysis of the public statements adopted by the Italian authorities in 2018 allows one to affirm that there has been a general rejection, albeit with diverse tones, of the Austrian initiatives on the dual passport and on consular assistance to German- and Ladin-speaking South Tyroleans. There seems to be, however, a striking difference between the position of the Government led by President Conte, after June 2018, and the approach previously taken by the Gentiloni Government and, more specifically, by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Alfano. Whereas Minister Alfano openly made reference to legal arguments, affirming that the measures announced by the Austrian Government would breach EU and international law, would risk undermining the protection of minorities in South Tyrol, and would constitute a threat to the principle of unity and indivisibility of the Italian State, the approach subsequently taken by the Conte Government is essentially based on political arguments. The Austrian initiatives are thus merely described as “inappropriate”, “inopportune” and even “hostile”. Reference to legal arguments only comes to the surface in the above-mentioned parliamentary motion. A significant passage in the preamble, indeed, mirrors the traditional Italian position according to which, after the discharge by Austria in 1992, the dispute between the two countries would be permanently closed and there would thus be no legal basis for any protective function by the transalpine neighbor.[28]

Marco Pertile and Aida Halilovic

[1] Autonomous Province of South Tyrol, Provincial Statistics Institute – ASTAT, “South Tyrol in Figures 2017”, 2018, available here.

[2] Italian Parliament, Parliamentary Information, Archives and Publications Office of the Senate Service for Official Reports and Communication, Constitution of the Italian Republic, available here.

[3] De Gasperi – Gruber Agreement, signed on 5 September 1946 by the Foreign Minister of Austria, Karl Gruber, and the President of the Council of Ministers of Italy, Alcide De Gasperi, available here.

[4] Decreto del Presidente della Repubblica 31 agosto 1972, n. 670, Approvazione del testo unico delle leggi costituzionali concernenti lo statuto speciale per il Trentino – Alto Adige, available here.

[5] On the involvement of the United Nations and for a comprehensive overview of the South Tyrol question, see: Hilpold, “South Tyrol”, in Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, on-line edition (January 2008); Woelk, Marko and Palermo (eds.), Tolerance through Law: Self Governance and Group Rights in South Tyrol, Leiden-Boston, 2008.

[6] On the political campaign by Siegfried Brugger and Karl Zeller, see SVP-Club der Ehemaligen Mandatarinnen und Mandatare (SVP Club of Former Mandators), Doppel Staatsbürgerschaft für Südtiroler. Eine europäische Geste des Vaterlandes Österreich als Ausdruck der Verbindung mit der österreichischen Minderheit und zur Vertiefung der österreichisch-italienischen Freundschaft im europäischen Geist, 2018, p. 4, available here.

[7] Austrian Parliament, Entschließungsantrag der Abgeordneten Neubauer, DDr. Königshofer, Gartlgruber und weiterer Abgeordneter betreffen Verleihung der österreichischen Staatsbürgerschaft an Altösterreicher mit einer fremden Staatsangehörigkeit, die vor den Pariser Vorortverträgen auf dem Gebiet Südtirols und Trentino samt Cortina D’Ampezzo gelebt haben, sowie an deren Nachfaren, 532/A(E) XXIV. GP, available here.

[8] As reported by the Italian press, see e.g. “Cittadinanza austriaca agli ex sudditi. Ma non a tutti”, Messaggero Veneto, 28 April 2010, available here.

[9] Consiglio della Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano, Resoconto integrale della seduta del Consiglio Provinciale n. 138, 9 March 2012, Mozione n. 338/11 del 27-6-2011, presentata dai consiglieri Knoll e Klotz, riguardante Raccomandazioni di Bolzano all’OSCE, pp. 51-56, available here. The motion was approved with 19 votes in favor, 4 against, and 3 abstentions.

[10] Austrian Parliament, Bürgerinitiative 7/BI XXV. GP, 29 October 2013, available here.

[11] As reported by the press, see, e.g., “L’Alto Adige riaccende il sogno della doppia cittadinanza: ‘Ci sentiamo più austriaci’”, La Stampa, 12 October 2017, available here. See also “Lettera a Vienna per doppia cittadinanza”, Ansa, 21 November 2017, available here.

[12] The relevant passage of the Kurz Government program reads: “In the spirit of European integration and to promote an ever closer union of the citizens of the Member States, it is envisaged that members of the ethnic groups of German and Ladin mother tongue in South Tyrol, on the basis of the Paris Treaty and the subsequent practice of the protective function, are given the opportunity to acquire the Austrian citizenship in addition to the Italian citizenship” (translation by the authors). See Zusammen. Für unser Österreich. Regierungsprogramm 2017–2022, available here.

[13] Italian Government, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Press release, 7 March 2018, available here.

[14] Ibid.

[15] As reported by the Austrian press. See, e.g., “Außenamt löst Südtirol-Eklat aus”, Die Presse, 19 April 2018, available here.

[16] As reported by the press. See, e.g., ibid. See also, “Österreichs Konsulate kümmern sich jetzt auch um Südtiroler”, Unsertirol, 18 April 2018, available here.

[17] See the commentary to the legal text, which specifies that consular protection may be granted also to persons for whom Austria exercises a function of legal protection under international law: 512 der Beilagen XXVI. GP – Regierungsvorlage – Erläuterungen, available here.

[18] Italian Government, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Press release, 08 May 2018, available here.

[19] As reported ibid.

[20] “Doppelpass rückt näher”, Die Neue Südtiroler Tageszeitung, 21 July 2018, available here.

[21] Italian Government, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Press release, 22 July 2018, available here.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Italian Government, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Press release, 8 September 2018, available here.

[24] Italian Government, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Press release, 17 September 2018, available here.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] As reported by the Austrian broadcasting corporation (ORF), available here.

[28] See, for instance, the position expressed in 2012 by the then President of the Council of Ministers, Mr Mario Monti, in an interview to the Austrian newspaper Kurier: “Monti über Südtirol und Berlusconi”, Kurier, 25 October 2012, available here. See also the reaction by Austria, summoning the Italian Ambassador on 9 November 2012 for a clarification on the Austrian protective function for South Tyrol: Bundesministerium Europa, Integration und Äußeres, “Österreichs Schutzfunktion für Südtirol – italienischer Botschafter zu klärendem Gespräch im Außenministerium”, available here.

Motion No. 1/00047 (D’Uva e Molinari), Chamber of Deputies, 27 September 2018.

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