After the Spanish government’s response to the Catalan referendum on independence, the debate now turns to what should happen next and how to find a solution that both sides would find acceptable. South Tyrol is a German-speaking province of Northern Italy, and while some tensions persist, has been been able to obtain extensive autonomy from Rome and coexist relatively successfully within Italy. Despite the social and historical contexts being very different, and Catalonia already enjoying autonomy within Spain, South Tyrol could provide ideas for future relations between Catalonia and Madrid.

One of the first things to emerge to outside observers following the referendum was that Catalan opinion is not uniformly for independence. As polling showed prior to the vote, and the pro-unity demonstrations after it, a hard in-or-out scenario is one that a considerable number of Catalonia’s inhabitants are not keen on. However, some argue that Catalonia’s autonomy could go further. Catalonia’s government has culture, communications, transportation, commerce, public safety and local government, and the environment as its exclusive competences, while education, health and justice are shared with the Spanish government. Additionally, a 2006 decision by Spain to confer on Catalonia the status of  “nation” , which would have given it taxation power, was struck down by Spain’s constitutional court on the basis that while Catalans consisted a distinct nationality within Spain, Catalonia did not constitute a separate nation within Spain. Despite the apparently generous autonomy that Catalonia enjoys, a common Catalan grievance is that the region contributes much to Spain’s economy while receiving little in return. Indeed, Catalonia is Spain’s richest region, and it’s net contribution to Spain’s finances corresponds to roughly double the funding it receives from the central government. As an Italian, this made me think of South Tyrol’s status in North Italy and certain historical factors that led to the province’s creation and special status, and I wondered what peculiarities this German-speaking autonomous province has that could be of interest in possible discussions on Catalan autonomy.

Why South Tyrol?

By many measures, South Tyrol (or the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, as it is known in Italy) is the most autonomous subnational administrative division in Europe. The province’s autonomy means that the Italian state is only responsible for defense, monetary policy, foreign policy, immigration policy, justice and policing (as per the province’s institutional website). Everything else is managed by the province, which also means it can enact policies in relation to its exclusive competences and applicable within its territory without state intervention. South Tyrol also enjoys an advantageous economic arrangement by which the province receives state subsidies, and 90% of the tax revenue generated within in is retained by the provincial government, in comparison to regions with an ordinary statute, who retain little of their tax receipts and funding is assigned to them by the central government (it must be added, there are four other autonomous regions that retain a significant portion of their tax revenues). Within the region, German and Italian are co-official languages, with Ladin also used for certain official communications and as an official language in communes where a majority declare it their mother tongue. The province employs the principle of ethnic proportionality to its posts, assigning them on the basis of the census reports’ figures for native Italian, German or Ladin speakers. The province is well-run and enjoys some of the highest living standards, education standards, and incomes in Italy (thanks also to generous financial support schemes from the province, as well as higher wages than elsewhere in Italy), and is also one of the most advanced provinces in terms of renewable energy and environmental protection.

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South Tyrol’s eight regions

Aside from delegating more competences to Catalonia (such certain economic sectors such as agriculture and artisanal activities, for which South Tyrol is solely responsible on its territory), South Tyrol’s economic arrangement could also be appealing for Catalonia, which currently depends on the central government to assign it a budget. Agreeing on a set percentage of Catalonia’s tax revenues remaining in the region could be a good way to settle the disputes regarding what the region’s economic contribution to Spain should be and what it should manage for itself, and allow the region to develop more of its own projects. Interestingly, this could work to Spain’s advantage, as allowing Catalonia to retain a larger part of its revenues while delegating more competences to the regional administration could mean Catalonia taking responsibility for funding the services associated to these competences, making any final funding transfers to Catalonia simpler for the central government. The proportionality principle could also work well, as it would allow the local-born population who identify as Spaniards primarily or transplants from other regions of Spain to be present in Catalonia’s institutions and retain a cultural and personal link to Spain, as well as guarantee that both Catalan-oriented and Spanish-oriented views influence policy and communication.

A model, but not exactly

Obviously, such a system would be, in political terms, near-impossible to implement without modifications in Spain as the weight of South Tyrol and Catalonia in their respective countries is hugely different. Catalonia accounts for roughly 20% of Spain’s GDP, and has a population of 7.5 million people, out of Spain’s 46.7 million. South Tyrol’s population is just over half a million people out of Italy’s 60 million, and the most recent estimate from the province’s revenue agency (2015) puts the its GDP at roughly 1% of Italy’s total. Given Catalonia’s huge importance within Spain, applying the generous arrangements that South Tyrol enjoys in an exact manner would create difficulties for the central government which would struggle to justify denying such benefits to other regions, undermining its authority and weakening its position within the Spanish political system. And most obviously, South Tyrol has consistently had Austria’s support regarding guarantees of autonomy, cultural preservation (as the region finds itself in the Austro-Bavarian cultural sphere), and language rights from the Italian state. This is something which other states would struggle to offer Catalonia as it is the largest single “Catalan land” and few states would want to risk compromising relations with Spain to do so.

Added to this, South Tyrol’s arrangements have themselves attracted considerable criticism in Italy as the province continues to enjoy a generous financial setup within the country despite the economic difficulties being experienced elsewhere. Some also argue that these generous concessions are the legacy of an Italian central government desperate for an end on any terms to anti-Italian terrorist violence by extremist separatist groups such as Ein Tirol (One Tyrol) or Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol (The South Tyrol Liberation Committee). Within the province itself, the population is clearly split along linguistic lines, with separate schools for the language groups (except a couple of integrated schools, which however are rare) and outside the major urban centres the populations often live separately with little interaction. It has also created a situation in which the one party, the Südtiroler Volkspartei (South-Tyrolean peoples’ party, or SVP) has dominated the province’s internal politics and its political representation within Italy. To get an idea of the party’s dominance, as of the last elections at the respective levels of governance, roughly 100 of the province’s 116 communes have SVP mayors, it is the biggest party in the provincial council (and always has been since the council was established in 1948), and nearly monopolises the province’s representation in the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Senate. This arrangement has led to considerable power (and wealth) being concentrated among a handful of individuals. For example, Luis Durnwalder was provincial president for 25 years, and his successor, Arno Kompatscher, holds this post alongside those of SVP leader and president of the Trentino Alto Adige region (arrangements which according to the Espresso news website add up to higher yearly wages than the US president).

All in all, South Tyrol’s experience could potentially provide a few additional points on which Catalonia and Spain could agree on, namely a set financial relationship and political representation within Catalonia. That being said, South Tyrol’s experience is very different from Catalonia’s in many respects, therefore the legal provisions that have shaped their current autonomous statuses have come around through different events and historical contexts. The differences in scale between the two also highlight the need to modify any provisions to better fit the Catalan situation. South Tyrol’s model can ultimately be considered one from which Catalonia and Spain can draw general ideas for further autonomous arrangements, but its exact application is unfeasible, and any measures it inspires will no doubt need to be adapted to the weight of Catalonia’s position within Spain, and it is the Catalans themselves who will have to find a consensus on the type relationship they want with the central government. Until then, all we have is speculation and hypothetical scenarios.

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