By Jens Woelk, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law and School of International Studies, University of Trento, Italy
70 years ago, on September 5th 1946, Italy’s Prime Minister De Gasperi and Austria’s Foreign Minister Gruber agreed on a far-reaching autonomy in order to protect the linguistic and cultural identity of German speakers in South Tyrol. South Tyrol had been annexed by Italy after WW I despite a majority of German speakers living there; a policy of forced Italianization and assimilation under Italy’s fascist regime did severely threaten the German speaking group. As the area remained with Italy after WW II, the bilateral autonomy arrangement between Austria and Italy guaranteed the distinct linguistic and cultural identity of the area through a special status.
The bilateral agreement had been implemented through the establishment of the Autonomous Region Trentino-South Tyrol in 1948 and … contested by the German speakers. Substantial amendments to the Autonomy Statute in 1972, creating a tripolar structure – two autonomous Provinces, Trento and Bolzano, receiving the most important powers, within one autonomous Region – opened the way for overcoming the crisis. After reaching full implementation in 1992, further limited amendments in 2001 enlarged the sphere of autonomous powers, introduced changes concerning the form of government and the protection of linguistic minorities in Trentino.
However, the general context has changed considerably over the last decades: externally, through European integration (Austria also became a member of the EU in 1995), cross-border cooperation and globalization. Within the autonomous entity the relations between the linguistic groups have become more relaxed, due to the economic success and well-being of the area. It is time to adapt and update the Basic Law, the Autonomous Statute. The constitutional reform approved by the Italian Parliament and subject to popular approval in a national referendum on 4 December 2016, also requires amendments to the Autonomy Statute – although “by mutual agreement“.
As a constitutional law of Italy, the Autonomy Statute can only be amended through the procedure for amending the Italian Constitution (art. 138), i.e. by the Italian Parliament. However, taking into account the character of the Autonomy Statute since 2001 as a Basic Law for the regional community, the Regional Council (assembly) can either lead an initiative for a reform or must be consulted, in case of an initiative for a reform by the government. In addition, there is no national referendum on amendments to the Autonomy Statute.
Although any reform will have to respect the regional frame (the Autonomy Statute is a regional one), the two autonomous Provinces have chosen their own – and different – procedures, which will have to be coordinated, at latest, in the Regional Council. In fact, the two Provincial Councils, sitting together as Regional Council, need to formalize the approval of a draft Autonomy Statute for the Autonomous Region in order to send the draft to the Italian Parliament.
In South Tyrol, a participatory process was introduced first through a bottom-up approach (Provincial Act from 23 April 2015, no. 3): In a series of “Open Spaces“ citizens met and discussed any issue regarding the future of South Tyrol, including external self-determination, i.e. independence from Italy. In fact, despite a far-reaching autonomy, guaranteed constitutional status and economic well-being, some political right-wing parties have garnered some electoral success in recent years, advocating radical solutions, such as an independent “Free State South Tyrol“; these political groups have been and continue to be quite vocal in the participatory process.
After the first phase, two consultative bodies have been set up for discussing reform proposals: a “Forum of 100“ as a citizen’s body, consisting of 100 persons randomly selected among 2.000 registered volunteers (a specific algorithm guaranteed the aim to reflect the South Tyrolean society in terms of gender, age and language groups). In parallel, the Provincial Council nominated a “Convention of 33“ as an expert body for consultation: 12 of its members are members of the Provincial Council (including the political opposition), 8 members are elected by the “Forum of 100“ among the latter’s members, 2 each represent trade unions and employers’ associations, 4 members represent the municipalities and 5 have been nominated as experts in law. The “Convention“ meets twice a month for one year to elaborate proposals for the reform of the Autonomy Statute. In parallel, the “Forum of 100“ continues to discuss issues of concern – both bodies are in contact with each other, in particular through the 8 members who maintain dual affiliation.
In Trento, a different approach has been chosen: The Provincial Council has established a consultative body, the Consulta, for elaborating a proposal for the reform of the Autonomy Statute. A special Provincial Act, no. 1 of 2 February 2016, provides the legislative basis determining the composition of the body, its mandate as well as the legal frame for its activities. The 25 members of the Consulta represent institutions as well as different sectors of the civil society: 3 representatives from the economic sector, 1 from the cooperatives, 3 from trade unions, 3 from the Council of Local Autonomies (representing municipalities), 1 representing the linguistic minorities, 3 from civil society (associations), 2 from the University (professors in public law), as well as 9 Councilors from the Provincial Council (5 determined by the political majority, 4 by the opposition parties).
The new consultative body, representative of the different facets of Trentino’s society, shall first develop its own views on a reform proposal. Within a period of four months, seven issues identified by the Consulta as essential for any reform shall be discussed, such as fundamental values of Trentino-South Tyrol’s special autonomy and the usefulness of a preamble gathering these (currently there is none); the institutional frame and relations within Region and Provinces; the protection of historical linguistic minorities; the distribution of legislative and administrative powers and the participation in decisions at State and EU levels; the relations between autonomous Province and municipalities as well as principles of the administration; instruments of direct and participatory democracy; financial resources and limits. The results of the discussions will be published in a programmatic document, which will serve as a basis for the following participatory process.
For a period of six months (January to June 2017), individual citizens and interested groups will be able to interact with the Consulta in public meetings, through the website etc. and comment on the reform proposals, make suggestions or add points of concern. This process is to be directed and managed by the Consulta itself in full autonomy. After this period, within further two months, its results will be analyzed and considered in the final draft for a reform proposal to be submitted to the Provincial Council. The latter will examine whether to use the proposal or amend it before adopting it, first at provincial level, then together with the colleagues from South Tyrol in the Regional Council.
As it can be easily understood, the reform process is long, complex and there are a number of obstacles or filters on the way to reform, not least the coordination between the two Provinces as well as the approval by the Italian Parliament (in the cumbersome procedure for constitutional amendments). However, a beginning has been made and the process is innovative due to its participatory dimension: for the first time the population shall be involved in defining the fundamental features of the autonomy, in contrast to the elite compromise characterizing the autonomy so far. If the operation succeeds, it will strengthen the legitimacy of the special autonomy, which is important notably because of the re-centralization program, a part of the Italy’s constitutional reform to be confirmed in a referendum on December 4th 2016. After 70 years, the autonomous Regions, including Trentino and South Tyrol, still deserve their special status due to the special interest of their populations in their autonomous self-governance.
For further information, see the websites below:
Consulta Trentino: https://www.riformastatuto.tn.it (Italian)
Autonomy Convention South Tyrol: http://www.convenzione.bz.it (Italian, German, Latin)
*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Observatory on Language Rights.
*Toutes opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles de l’auteur et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la vision de l’Observatoire national en matière de droits linguistiques.
This content has been updated on 15 January 2017 at 19 h 51 min.