The South Tyrol Success Story Italy's German-Speaking Province Escapes the Crisis
Part 2: Paying for the South
Although the numbers have been rising recently, an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent in 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, meant full employment in South Tyrol. The GDP per capita is 30 percent higher than the national average and twice as high as in Sicily. Meanwhile Rome, as required by the Italian constitution, "only" returns 90 percent of collected taxes to Bolzano, compared to the 100 percent that goes to the Sicilian capital Palermo. South Tyrol, says Durnwalder, is unwilling to help pay for the good life for residents of southern Italy. "Even down there they also have the option of working," he points out.
But Rome has recently upped the pressure. This year, Durnwalder is expected to contribute 500 million ($630 million), or 10 percent of the province's budget, to the financially strapped central government. Rome still owes its northernmost province 3 billion, which it is effectively paying in kind. The control of some 21 money-losing train stations, military barracks, post offices and almost all national roads on South Tyrol territory has already been transferred to the Durnwalder administration. Durnwalder says he has always managed to work out solutions with Berlusconi, "as long as Biancofiore isn't running around down there and telling everybody that her fellow South Tyroleans are being mistreated by the barbarians."
He is referring to Michaela Biancofiore, a long-legged, blonde native of Bolzano with Italian roots, who is a member of the parliament in Rome for Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party and who is close to Berlusconi. At the end of last year, she made sure that all of Italy knew that she had celebrated her birthday at Berlusconi's villa, and that she had thanked the prime minister by sending him a cake decorated with a cartoon depicting his last appearance in Bolzano, in which Berlusconi could be seen holding out his extended middle finger.
'Without South Tyrol, Italy Would Have Many Fewer Problems'
On this evening, Biancofiore, who has just tottered across Walther Square in Bolzano, orders a grapefruit juice in a downtown hotel. Then she lets loose, speaking in Italian: "South Tyrol is a piece of land that could have been painted by God. But without South Tyrol, Italy would have many fewer problems. I like Durnwalder. But it would be nice if he would only spend the money that's earned in his province, instead of constantly collecting government money."
If Rome, in response to the economic crisis, transfers even more responsibilities to Bolzano, South Tyrol could turn into a "state within a state," says Biancofiore, who is notorious among Rome's German-speaking subjects for her slogan, "a tricolore in front of every farm," referring to the Italian flag. According to Biancofiore, "Italian federalism is under threat."
Although the days when Tyrolean separatists in Italy would blow up utility poles are long past, men like Thomas Widmann, the provincial transportation minister who is seen as a possible successor to Durnwalder, have now institutionalized the quest for independence. In areas like the judiciary, Italy is "closer to a Third World country than Europe," Widmann says. Citing Rome's empty coffers, he says that South Tyrol ought to "do everything possible to separate itself from this country -- preferably through complete financial autonomy."
One leading SVP politician offers a more derisive but no less devastating take on the situation. He says that for religious people, at least, it's good news that the Italian state still exists, despite the complete breakdown of some of its key government institutions. "It's proof positive that there is indeed life after death."
Losing Its Edge
However, even in South Tyrol, this arrogance is increasingly out of place. Recent studies show that the province is starting to lose its competitive edge and is suffering from a lack of new academic talent, and that its future prospects are not good. Durnwalder's realm is lacking the basic conditions for success in the globalized economic world. For decades, German-speaking South Tyroleans sought to stave off outside infiltration, a policy that now makes the province less attractive to foreign companies. The number of bilingual young people is declining and commercial property prices are virtually unaffordable. A hectare (2.2 acres) of land in the Bolzano area now goes for about 1 million.
"Nowhere is there as much economic freedom as there is in our province -- for our people, of course," Durnwalder slyly points, when the conversation turns to obstacles to outside investment.
Despite these efforts, the changes in the bastion of South Tyrol can no longer be overlooked. The minute the governor leaves his office he sees groups of Moroccans and Pakistanis gathered in the parks near the bus terminal. Romanians, Poles and Slovaks work long hours in the region's apple orchards, which are protected by anti-hail netting. "Anyone who complains about this is a bigot," says Transportation Minister Widmann. "Many of us don't want to pick apples anymore. Prosperity makes you lazy."
The Problems of a Monoculture
In the village of Margreid, Alois Lageder says that his business depends on seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. Producing an average of 1.5 million bottles of wine a year, he is South Tyrol's biggest private vintner -- and its most unconventional. When he launched the business, his goal was to develop "a strong brand that is independent of South Tyrol." Today he exports his wine to places as far away as Russia and China.
Lageder, a tall, blue-eyed man who wears moccasins without socks, operates his vineyards according to the principles of biodynamic agriculture, which is based on the teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. He plays classical music to the grape juice as it ferments in oak barrels. He has quartz ground up under a copper beech in the courtyard and applies the powder to grape leaves during the correct phase of the moon. And he philosophizes about "winegrowing in the solar age," and about renewable energy and the effects of global warming. "We will need new grape varieties," he says.
Lageder was already a pioneer among vintners in the 1970s, in the days when South Tyrol was known mainly for inexpensive wine that was sold by the liter, and when the vineyards around Lake Kaltern were producing plenty of rotgut. Today Lageder is 60 and still deeply involved in his life's work. "South Tyrol's problem is monoculture," says Lageder, "in agriculture and in politics."
The vintner has had his share of quarrels with Governor Durnwalder. The two men butted heads when Lageder called upon the provincial government to increase funding for research instead of spending its money on vanity projects. On another occasion, Lageder, an art lover and president of Bolzano's Museion Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, incurred the governor's wrath when he refused to have a controversial piece by German artist Martin Kippenberger, which depicted a crucified frog holding a beer mug, removed before the pope's 2008 visit. "Durnwalder was in the middle of an election campaign at the time," says Lageder, "and the thing with the frog supposedly cost him up to 20,000 votes. Things were finished between us after that."
- Part 1: Italy's German-Speaking Province Escapes the Crisis
- Part 2: Paying for the South
- Part 3: Traditional Region at a Crossroads