Austria’s Graf gets grief over “united Tyrol”
Breaking into the summer holiday lull, Austrian politics has gotten into a lather over a far-right populist’s call for a referendum on whether a mainly German-speaking region of northern Italy should rejoin Austria.
No matter how far-fetched, his proposal raised a hue and cry by challenging the taboo of old unreconstructed nationalism in a country restlessly determined to live down its Nazi past.
South Tyrol – Alto Adige in Italian – is an autonomous, Alpine province of Italy bordering Austria. It was annexed by Italy from defeated Austria-Hungary at the end of World War One.
Italy granted increasing self-government to South Tyrol in the decades after World War Two, defusing separatist unrest by Austro-German speakers. It is now among Italy’s richest regions, with an open border to Austria thanks to EU integration.
But Martin Graf, a rightist deputy speaker of Austria’s parliament, declared on Sunday that South Tyrol was actually “part of overall Tyrol”, and only “currently” within Italy.
The universal right of self-determination should apply for all “the German people” in Europe – just as those in old Communist East Germany got their wish to merge into one Germany at the end of the Cold War in 1990. “It’s time to ask the people if there should be one Tyrol,” Graf said.
Graf owes his parliamentary post due to the fact that his far-right Freedom Party replaced the Greens as Austria’s No. 3 party in last year’s parliamentary election.
Some Freedom members have called into question an Austrian law that prohibits neo-Nazi activities. Graf has links to a rightist fraternity, Olympia, that nurses old German nationalist causes and has acted as a platform for Holocaust deniers.
So his South Tyrol remarks were unsettling and drew swift fire from mainstream conservative and centre-left politicians protective of Austria’s delicate democratic reputation.
Some pointed out what they deemed the absurdity and danger of redrawing borders or re-championing national differences in a 21st century European Union that has largely done away with frontier barriers in a spirit of common peace and prosperity.
“(Graf) should avoid such ill-considered and unrealistic statements,” said Guenther Platter, conservative People’s Party governor of Austria’s (North) Tyrol province. “Borders have long since fallen and we live today in the heart of a common Europe. Cooperation between (the two Tyrols) is better than ever.”
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Graf’s “radical, unrealistic” comments were at odds with good neighbourly relations with Italy and invited misunderstanding.
Social Democratic party general secretary Laura Rudas accused Graf of “political pyromania”.
A defiant Graf retorted: “None of my attackers are in the position to explain why there should be a self-determination right for Tibetans and Kurds, but it is still being withheld from South Tyroleans after 90 years.”
The solid front of criticism was briefly punctured by a statement of support for Graf from the South Tyrol Freedom faction in the provincial assembly in Bolzano (Bozen in German).
Unconvinced, Austrian media sought out the ethnically German governor of South Tyrol, Luis Durnwalder. He said he was convinced that if a vote were held tomorrow, most South Tyroleans would choose to stay as they are now within Italy.
“If parties had six months to campaign on this, you might see a small majority for ‘Anschluss’ with Austria,” he told Austrian state television, using the discredited word for Austria’s enthusiastic accession to Nazi Germany in 1938.
“But it wouldn’t be realistic. Italy would never consent. Violence or terror naturally would be no option. And, given existing treaties, we would never get a majority (for rejoining Austria) in the United Nations.”
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said he would try again to have parliament dismiss the rightist from the speaker job over what he called behaviour damaging to Austrian interests.
But Finance Minister Josef Proell said that while Graf’s remarks were “totally unacceptable and scurrilous”, his conservatives would not contribute votes crucial for a two-thirds majority needed to topple Graf.
He said it would be wrong to turn Graf into “a martyr via parliamentary manoeuvre” and he should resign himself.
Graf ruled that out, saying he could not be punished for exercising his right to free speech.
(Photo: Martin Graf drinks beer during a Fraternity Group meeting in Innsbruck June 20, 2009. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler)