Austria’s new chancellor said on Tuesday he would press on with contentious plans to offer passports to German-speakers in the northern Italian province of Alto Adige, but promised to consult closely with Rome.
The dual citizenship plan was included in a coalition agreement unveiled over the weekend between Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).
Italian politicians have already roundly condemned it, calling it a gesture to nationalism and saying it will threaten the delicate ethnic balance in the autonomous area of Alto Adige, also known as the South Tyrol.
Kurz has said the scheme is only meant to encourage cooperation between European states.
“That is something that of course we only plan to do in close cooperation with Italy and with the government in Rome,” Kurz told a joint news conference with FPO chief and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache after their government’s first cabinet meeting.
Alto Adige was ceded to Italy by Austria after World War One. Despite moves by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to settle thousands of ethnic Italians there in the 1920s, German-speakers still outnumber Italians by around two to one.
Italians and German-speakers have their own schools and largely frequent different bars and restaurants. But the region enjoys enormous autonomy and generous handouts from Rome, which have helped dampen secessionist sentiments in the province.
“In our government programme we have complied with a wish of South Tyroleans that was expressed by all parties in South Tyrol and that above all was also expressed by the South Tyrolean provincial government,” Kurz said.
Italy’s foreign minister was quoted by Italian news agency Ansa on Monday as saying that discussing the issue would be “a conversation that requires enormous delicacy”.