South Tyrol Declares Autonomy Against Rome’s Lockdown

The prosperous, predominantly German-speaking province has long resisted rule from Rome and is defying Italy’s lockdown orders in the pandemic.

The message “Away from Rome” on a field in Val Pusteria, in the province of South Tyrol, in northern Italy. (Suedtiroler Schuetzenbund via AP)

(AP) — In decades past, the words ignited on a mountainside demanded independence from Rome’s rule for the province’s German-language majority. Now they vent discontent in South Tyrol, which was once part of Austria, with the uncompromising lockdown that the Italian government imposed to slow the spread of the virus.

Spurred by economic pressure, the provincial governor defied Rome this week and reasserted South Tyrol’s cherished, allowing restaurants, hair salons, tattoo parlors and museums to reopen Monday — well ahead of the timetable set by Italy’s government.

“We have a relatively positive situation regarding the epidemic, with a rate of contagion the lowest in Italy,” said Gov. Arno Kompatscher, whose South Tyrolean People’s Party has controlled the province since 1948. The party’s legislators in the national parliament back Italian Premier Giuseppe Cont’s government.

“We appreciated the actions of the government in the phase of emergency, where it was necessary to move in a united way,” Kompatscher said. “But we are very proud and jealous of our autonomy.”

While the rest of Italy watched with a mix of envy and curiosity, South Tyroleans wearing masks could browse shops again for items such as a tablecloth needed for a gift, have piercings by appointment and visit a hairdresser for a long-overdue haircut.

They sat in Walther Square, near Bolzano’s Duomo, and ate lunch at the prescribed 2-meter distance or drank coffee in bars outfitted with Plexiglas safety screens.

Despite the province’s bold stance, some business owners deferred to Rome — for now.

Alexander Sullmann, a bar owner in the town of Neumarkt, known in Italian as Egna, said he was waiting at least a week to see if clearer safety guidelines for his industry emerge. He was particularly worried about how to enforce rules that forbid more than two people from different households at a single table.

“The province gave us the OK, but there are a lot of questions and a lot of rules are not set in stone yet,” Sullmann, 30, said,

South Tyrol, or Alto Adige to Italian speakers, is an Alpine province of world-class ski resorts and neatly manicured orchards and vineyards that became part of Italy after World War I. After a period of violence in the 1950s and 1960s, the German-speaking resistance settled down after Italy implemented the province’s autonomic status, enshrining bilingualism and allowing 90% of local tax revenue to remain in South Tyrol.

People walk through the vegetable market in Bolzano, in Italy’s South Tyrol, on Monday. (AP photo/Matthias Schrader)

The province, with a population of 520,000, today enjoys the highest gross domestic product per capita in Italy and among the highest in Europe at $45,500. But the pandemic is forecast to contract the economy by 7% to 11%, and many see the extended shutdown of commercial and social life as decisive.

The head of the region’s 59,000-member chamber of commerce, Michl Ebner, backed the push for South Tyrol to go its own way on emerging from the virus lockdown.

“I understand the concept of solidarity,” Ebner said. “But you cannot apply the same rules from Lampedusa to the Brenner Pass. The situations are different.”

South Tyrol reported no new virus cases on Tuesday. The province so far has 2,572 confirmed cases with 290 deaths — both figures representing about 1% of Italy’s totals.

Ebner cited lack of discipline in Italy’s hard-hit Lombardy region during the early stage of an initial lockdown, when cellphone data showed about half of its residents leaving their homes.

In South Tyrol, “when the order was given not to leave home, people didn’t leave their homes,” he said. “If here the numbers are improving … take note and award the virtuous.”

Until the flaming words that appeared recently under the night sky, it had been years since fires protesting Rome’s governance burned on local mountainsides.

The leader of the 6,000-strong Schuetzen, a cultural association that seeks to preserve Tyrolean customs and sees Rome as a foreign power — took credit for igniting the flames. Juergen Wirth Anderlan thinks the “peaceful message” made Kampatscher’s push to open businesses easier to sell to Rome’s minister for regional affairs.

“He could say, ‘I don’t have my people under control; there is something bubbling up there,’” Wirth Anderlan said. “What the economic federations and tourism federations told the provincial president was probably heavier and carried more pressure than from us. We underscored that with these fires.”

Wirth Anderlan said he rejects the violence of past secession moves — although he wants to see South Tyrol become independent or annexed by Austria. Neither position is on the mainstream provincial political agenda.

South Tyrol’s governor said the best way to deal with such separatist sentiment is with strong management of the region’s autonomy — which he believes can be an asset to Italy.

“Alto Adige is a little Europe within Europe that is part of the Italian state, where multiple ethnic groups, cultures and languages coexist, and which can act as a bridge between northern and southern Europe,” Kompatscher said.


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