December 19, 2017 / 10:17 AM / a year ago

Austria promises to consult Rome on passport offer to Italians

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s new coalition government will press ahead with plans to offer citizenship to the German-speaking minority in northern Italy, it said on Tuesday, but pledged to consult Rome on the project, which risks reopening century-old wounds.

The dual-citizenship plan for the northern Italian region of Alto Adige was included in a 180-page coalition agreement published over the weekend by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

Alto Adige was ceded to Italy by Austria after World War One. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini tried to settle thousands of ethnic Italians there in the 1920s, but German-speakers still outnumber Italians by around two to one.

Italian 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 sentiment in the province.

Kurz has said the scheme, which the FPO has long pushed for, 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.

Italian politicians have already roundly condemned Austria’s plan, calling it a gesture to nationalism and saying it will threaten the delicate ethnic balance in Alto Adige, also known as South Tyrol.

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”.

Kurz, however, downplayed any tension.

“We have excellent contact with Rome. I am a personal friend of the head of government. I am a personal friend of the foreign minister’s,” said Kurz, who was foreign minister until his new government was sworn in.

“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.

Strache said Italy already has a similar arrangement in place for Italian minorities in Slovenia and Croatia. The Italian Foreign Ministry website lays out conditions under which people who lost their citizenship when some territories became part of Yugoslavia can apply for an Italian passport.

The issue did not feature in Austria’s parliamentary election in October, which Kurz’s party won with a hard line on immigration that often overlapped with the FPO’s. Austria took in a large number of asylum seekers during Europe’s migration crisis. Both parties pledged to stop another such influx.

In Austrian Tyrol, however, where maps of the province often still show the region to the south that is now part of Italy, it is still an emotional issue. That province, a stronghold of Kurz’s conservatives, is due to hold an election for the local parliament in February.

The head of Alto Adige’s government, Arno Kompatscher, said he supported the plan as long as it was put in a European context of uniting nations rather than dividing them - a possible reference to any objections Italy might have.

“It therefore has nothing to do with secession or moving borders or anything else. Rather it has to do with this expression of personal connection (to Austria) and the debate should take place in this context,” he told a news conference.

The criteria on which citizenship would be offered were still open and should be the subject of discussions between Austria and Italy, he added..

Austria and Italy have clashed repeatedly in recent years over Austria’s threat to introduce controls at the Brenner crossing, a vital transport link on their shared border, if the number of migrants arriving there from Italy rises sharply. So far that has not happened.

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome, editing by Larry King

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