As once unerringly pointed out by Christoph Pan, an expert on the South Tyrolean minority, an “old question within the new Europe” has not gone away, i.e. the question of autochthonous national or ethnic minorities. This is an “old question”, because it implies the formation of a “national idea” and creation of national states. It is the result of rigid frontier arrangements made by the victorious powers after the First World War, when neither self-determination nor President Wilson’s 14 points were taken into consideration and frontiers were drawn arbitrarily, not on the basis of language or nationality. The same thing happened after the Second World War when, in the case of Hungarians and Germans, efforts were made to solve the question once and for all by “population transfers”, in other words: expulsion.

After the collapse of Communism, whose regimes sought to merge every national minority and to “develop a new type of man”, it became apparent in many places that explosive forces had been dormant under the surface. Recall Belgrade’s objective of “ethnic land consolidation” in Kosovo, only stopped by NATO bombings in Serbia. Or the persistent disputes between Hungary and its neighbours, especially between Budapest and Pozsony (Bratislava/Pressburg) and Bucharest, over those governments’ treatment of ethnic Magyar groups.


Although relations between Hungary and Slovakia have been improving lately, a controversial language law is still in force that has justifiably received criticism primarily by ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia and the Budapest government, even if in communications with public authorities the possibility to use minority languages has been somewhat expanded by an amendment to the law. The amendment was enacted upon the initiative of Deputy Prime Minister Rudolf Chmel, an appointee of the mixed Slovakian–Hungarian party “Most-Híd”. It establishes that, on a communal and regional level, an ethnic group is entitled to representation where its proportion of the population reaches 15 per cent (as opposed to the previous 20 per cent). However, there is a catch: the amendment is binding only where the 15 per cent has been confirmed by two censuses, and the next one will only take place in 2021. Hence in reality, the more restrictive old language law remains in force.



On the other hand a controversial Hungarian law grants citizenship to people who have no permanent residency in Hungary. The law targets the more than two million Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries, the descendants of those Hungarians who after the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920, found themselves part of minorities in Romania (1.4 million), Slovakia (550,000), Ukraine (150,000), Serbia (290,000), Croatia (17,000), Slovenia (8,000) and Austria (40,000 native speakers; according to a census 6,500).

The amendment to the Hungarian citizenship act, which was approved by all parties represented in parliament – with only three opposing votes by Socialist lawmakers – has been criticised by the EU. But the law has not provoked serious controversy with neighbouring countries, apart from Slovakia – not even with Romania. On the contrary: Bucharest adopts the same policy in citizenship issues and allows ethnic Romanians, who make up around two thirds of the population in the neighbouring Republic of Moldavia, to obtain Romanian citizenship.


Clouds have reappeared however over the Romanian–Hungarian relationship, which had become relatively tension-free and characterised by cooperation since the Orbán government came to power. Despite official statements to the contrary from Bucharest, Romania has been harassing ethnic Hungarians, mainly in the predominantly Magyar-populated areas: in the counties of Mureş (40 per cent Hungarian), in Covasna (Kovászna) (74 per cent), and in Harghita (85 per cent). Bucharest is planning to set up macro-regions, wherein the Hungarian areas would be divided and largely distributed among a north-western region Someșana, a western region Apușeana, and a central region Mureșana. Ethnic proportion would thus be changed in such a way that even the Szeklers, who now constitute the majority within the Szeklerland (Székelyföld) region would turn into a minority.

Hungarian associations and parties in Romania all share the view that the Romanian plan amounts to another attempt to assimilate the Magyars – a goal that almost all Romanian governments have pursued since Trianon. The 60,000 Csángós, an ancient Hungarian minority of Catholic faith, for the most part located in an entirely Orthodox area in Bacău County, show what assimilation within four generations means: merging step-by-step with the national majority.


In Transylvania another process has been causing concern. On several occasions, Zsolt Árus from the Szekler National Council has pointed out cases, in which an “Association for Civil Rights”, registered in Bucharest, required mayors in the Szeklerland to remove Hungarian inscriptions on communal buildings and institutions as well as symbols of the traditions of the minority, such as the Szekler flag. If the mayors do not comply, the said association threatens to sue them. In 2016, fifty-nine such cases were registered; in 2017, thirty. As a rule, in the first and second judicial instances Romanian courts decide in favour of the accusing association, although the applicable Romanian minority legislation establishes that where there is a 20 per cent share of a minority group in the overall population, bilingual place name signs, as well as other inscriptions must be available.

However, this norm is often violated. Where there are such bilingual signs, the Hungarian place name is often defaced or rendered illegible, as happened recently in Maroshévíz/Toplița in Harghita County, according to both the Szekler National Council and the Democratic Association of the Magyars of Romania (RMDSZ). The vandalism occurred just a short time after the Hungarians in the 13,000-population city had managed to persuade the mayor, after years of disputes, to put up bilingual town signs. As the RMDSZ remarked, these were likely “not pranks committed by stupid boys” but rather a coordinated action, since identical paint had been used to smear the signs at all the town entrances and exits. The party also noted that similar incidents were occurring across the Transylvania region, revealing widespread latent anti-Hungarian attitudes among the Romanian part of the population: ignorance and ineptitude on the part of the Romanian authorities, including the municipal administrations and the police in particular. Of course, the perpetrators were never identified, and the municipal authorities invariably continued to use every trick in the book to avoid any usage at all of bilingual inscriptions.

Thus one could conclude that in Romania the framework agreement that was ratified by Bucharest in 1998 for the protection of national minorities is evidently being violated. In spite of that, Bucharest and Budapest largely agree about the interests of their respective minorities in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine. There, with around 150,000 people the Magyars represent around 12 per cent of Transcarpathia’s population, the 32,000 ethnic Romanians making up around 2.6 per cent.


Neighbourly relations between Serbia and Hungary had been thriving until a restitution law adopted under Serbia’s former president Boris Tadić enshrined the principle of collective guilt, thus excluding descendants of expelled ethnic Germans and Magyars from indemnities for expropriations. In response, the then Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, János Martonyi announced that, if Belgrade maintained the law, which he called “morally, legally and politically unacceptable”, Budapest would exercise a veto in case of the European Council considering the EU candidacy status of Serbia. Subsequently, the law was amended by a large majority in the parliament of Belgrade, taking objections from Budapest into account. The amendment led to an improvement in bilateral relations, and also support from Hungary for Serbia – together with other neighbour states – in their bid to secure EU candidate status.


On the other hand, the minority issue has hardly played a role in Budapest’s relationship to Zagreb. The Croatian constitutional law on the protection of minorities has been in force since 2002, and in 2003 they were able to elect their self-governments. In neighbouring Slovenia, the 8,000 ethnic Hungarians even have a potent mandate which is anchored in the constitution.


The minority issue in Austria has been a source of irritation for Budapest due to the Hungarian minority (or for that matter the Croatian minority) of Burgenland not being involved in negotiations about the amendment of the Ethnic Groups Act. The amendment became necessary after an agreement about the number of bilingual place name signs was made with the Carinthian Slovenes in the previous year, in compliance with Article 7 of the Austrian State Treaty of 1955–56, years after it had come into effect. Not only the Austrian Centre for Ethnic Groups, but also Budapest and the interest groups of the Magyars in Austria fear that, due to new public language regulations, municipalities that are home to minorities may delegate official procedures to district commissions in their capacity of higher authority and so the Slovenian, Croatian and Hungarian languages could be “discarded ex officio”.


In the context of historical minority conflicts that continue to affect current neighbourhood policy, the example of South Tyrol should be kept in mind as a model for conflict prevention, or even as a model for their resolution. Especially so regarding disputes among neighbour states that are also EU members, such as Hungary and Slovakia, as well as Romania.

The example of South Tyrol proves that on a national (cultural) level togetherness and unity as well as cross-border cooperation is possible, and can bring beneficial economic results without shifting borders of nation states. EU-membership and the development of regionalism have enabled the borders set up between Austria and Italy in 1918–19 upon the division of Tyrol to become permeable, although de facto and in terms of administration, those borders still exist.

At this point, a historical foray is necessary to demonstrate the character of this “model”. After the First World War, according to the terms of the peace treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye the southern part of Tyrol was given to Italy in 1919, despite its violation of the armistice by its prior annexation of the region the year before. From October 1922, fascist Italy sought to de-Germanise the “Alto Adige” (a name which was officially prescribed at the time, and describes the upper region of the Etsch River, today Adige), by

· forbidding the use of the name Tyrol; Italianising all names on gravestones;

· forbidding any more German lessons in schools; forbidding the speaking of German in public;

· forbidding the use of local dialects in the valleys;

· making Italian the sole official language;

· replacing all Austrian civil servants with Italians, and all elected town mayors – by decree – with Italian office mayors (Podestà);

· resettling Southern Italians to South Tyrol.

As these colonialist measures did not achieve the desired success, the Axis partners Hitler and Mussolini forced the South Tyroleans by means of a forced “optional” agreement to either relocate to the Deutsches Reich (over the Brenner Pass) or to remain (and thus be completely Italianised).


Although most people opted to leave for Germany, the Second World War prevented collective resettlement. In 1946, the allied forces rejected the demand for a census in South Tyrol, and thus the foreign ministers of Austria and Italy agreed on minority protection for South Tyroleans, which became a component of the peace treaty with Italy. The Gruber–de Gasperi Agreement of 5 September 1946 provided for political self-administration, and in the cultural context guaranteed native language education rights as well as the equality of the German and Italian languages in all segments of social life.


In compliance with the agreement, Rome issued an autonomy statute in 1948 and declared it a part of the Italian Constitution. However, the province Bolzano– South Tyrol was merged into one region with the neighbouring province of Trento (“Trentino–Alto Adige”). The move by Alcide de Gasperi – a Trentinian – meant that the Italian ethnic population exceeded that of the German and Ladin ethnic groups, and became dominant in Trentino. Under the slogan “Away from Trento!“ the South Tyroleans held protests against the switch in 1957 and more targeted settlements of Italians between Brenner and Salurner Klause. The “Liberation Committee of South Tyrol” (BAS) drew global attention to the non-compliance of Rome with its contractual obligations through bomb attacks, in which the Italian secret service was later shown to be involved, in order to generate what is known today as a “strategy of tension”.

In 1960, the then foreign minister of Austria, Bruno Kreisky addressed the UN about the conflict. Nevertheless, Italy did not cede, and the attacks intensified in the summer of 1961. Rome deployed 21,000 soldiers and carabinieri to the North, and South Tyrol moved to the centre of world affairs. Today however hardly anyone remembers these events, except for the generation who experienced them, and historians.


After several rounds of negotiations between Vienna and Rome, that included representatives of North and South Tyrol, the parties agreed to deescalate the conflict by combining 137 individual measures into an “operational calendar” – chronologically setting targets for the implementation –, tied up in an exemplary “package-solution”. Before it could come into force on 20 January 1972 as a “Second Statute of Autonomy”, it needed the approval of the South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP), at that time the main political power representing the German and Ladin ethnic groups. At their party convention in the health resort of Merano in 1969 the decision was carried by a slim majority.

It took another twenty years before it was possible to implement the main provisions concerning self-administration and the equality of the German language. The implementation of the “package” could finally be declared only after the then Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti assured the Parliament that amendments could only be made with the consent of the South Tyroleans.


An official exchange of notes followed between Rome and Vienna, and the handing in of a “Declaration on Dispute Settlement” to the United Nations represented the final and formal closure of the South Tyrol conflict. With the accession of Austria to the EU in 1995 and the Schengen Agreement coming into effect, the border customs fell at the Brenner Pass and other border crossings, which again brought the two parts of Tyrol closer together than ever since the annexation of South Tyrol in 1918.

The cross-border regionalism based on the integration of the Austrian Province of Tyrol, the Italian Autonomous Province of Bolzano–South Tyrol and the Autonomous Province of Trento, the three regions of “Old Tyrol”, offers advantages that should not be underestimated especially in the economic sector. Only 50 years ago, South Tyrol was a poor country, but now it is a rich one. Today its provincial budget (completely self-financed) amounts to six billion euros – with a population of 530,000 people on 7,400 square kilometres, of which just about 15 per cent can be farmed, due to its situation in the Central Alps. Some 90 per cent of the tax and tax revenue remain in the province, 10 per cent are paid according to the autonomy-package to the Italian state budget. This autonomous form of self-administration thus led to prosperity and stability, both being in the interest of a national majority – in South Tyrol meaning that of the Italian ethnic group – and the minorities.


The provinces of the European region of Tyrol – or “Tyrolean Euregio” –, in which the three regions (the Austrian Province of Tyrol, the Italian Autonomous Provinces of Bolzano-South Tyrol and Trento, united in the Autonomous Region Bolzano–Alto Adige) have been cooperating organisationally since the 1990s, are gradually moving closer together politically too, although not (yet) joint completely. Hopefully, this “model” will not fail to have the desired effect on other smouldering ethnic group conflicts, in spite of Rome’s repeated measures with the intention, if not to undermine, but to limit autonomy.

Anyone aware of positive examples of nationality policy and minority protection knows that relations between the two Danubian neighbours Hungary and Slovakia, and Hungary and Romania – despite the basic treaty and contractual protection of minorities – are still determined by the minority issue. The situation of the Hungarian minorities in both countries lags far behind those of the Swedes on the Åland Islands that belong to Finland, or the German ethnic group in South Denmark, the Danish minority in Schleswig-Holstein, the German Community in East Belgium, or the old Austrian German-Tyroleans and Ladins (descendants of the Rhaetian native population) in the Autonomous Province of Bolzano-South Tyrol.


Even after the fall of the Communist system in East Central Europe in 1989, despite praiseworthy attempts and certain legal agreements – primarily at the Council of Europe – the explosive power that is still present in the relationships between national majorities and ethnic minorities – especially in central states – has certainly not been reduced, and definitely not in all places. In view of the fact that there are approximately 350 autochthonous minorities with a population of more than 100 million in Europe, one seventh of the entire population of the states between the Atlantic and the Urals where they live, this is all the more disturbing, as the European Union (EU) has not created effective instruments or a procedure to not only keep minority conflicts in check but to prevent their eruption in the first place. On the contrary, the EU Commission and the Council have looked on strangely unconcerned, declaring themselves “not responsible” or providing embarrassing recommendations, according to which the conflicting parties should kindly “settle their controversy bilaterally”.


This bypasses reality, which brings us back to South Tyrol. What can be learned – following decades of sometimes dramatic fights for territorial and cultural autonomy and political self-administration – from its emergence as a “role model“, and “good example for a peaceful solution for other ethnic minority conflicts”? Nothing less than that the EU Commission and Council must bring there representatives of national majorities and ethnic minorities of all political levels from other regions, so they can study the different ways of coexistence and cooperation between Germans (who represent around 69 per cent of the population), Ladins (4.4 per cent), and Italians (26.4 per cent), despite all the imperfections and recurring attempts by Italian politicians to roll back the autonomy wherever it is possible.

Slovaks and Romanians in particular could experience first-hand the reality that the desire for autonomy, be it territorial or cultural, does not match the frightening images that are associated with such longings in their respective homelands.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email