Austria faces Italian anger over double-passports offer

Rome and Vienna at loggerheads over citizenship for Italy's German speakers

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, head of Austrian People's Party, and his girlfriend Susanne Thier arrive to the polling station to casts their vote in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, when about 6.4 million people are eligible to vote in the national elections. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
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Italy's foreign minister summoned the Austrian ambassador on Wednesday after plans emerged for Vienna to offer citizenship to the German speaking minority in the north of the country.

Austrian officials have confirmed plans to bring forward a new nationality law that allows German speakers with a historic link to the country to claim Austrian passports.

The move has angered the government in Rome as a potential wedge that opens up the prospect of divided loyalties among a segment of its own citizenry. Given that both states are members of the European Union, which confers a joint citizenship, Italy maintains there is no need for the proposal.

Confronted with newspaper reports of its plans, the right-wing government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz disputed only the report that the measure would be published in September.

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The law would see Austrian citizenship granted to those in the south Tyrol region around Bolzano who speak German or Ladin, another minority language. The offer would not be available to the Italian speakers in the area.

“The possibility to grant Austrian citizenship to ethnic groups of German and Ladin mother tongue takes place in the spirit of European integration and the European peace project,” a spokesman said. “The legal requirements for the granting of citizenship will not be met until 2019/2020 at the earliest.

Italian officials condemned the move as inappropriate and substantially hostile, especially as Austria is acting as the rotating president of the EU."Before being a hostile act it is a frankly curious act, the suitability of which we are wondering about," said Enzo Moavero, the Italian foreign minister. "Granting citizenship of a state to the citizens of another state with which they already share European citizenship seems to us a big fudge of citizenship and words."

In contrast, regional politicians from South Tyrol support the offer. An estimated 60 per cent of South Tyroleans speak German compared to about 25 per cent who speak Italian and four per cent who speak Ladin.

There are calls for the Austrians to extend the initiative and allow residents in the Trentino region, just below South Tyrol to apply. A large swathe of Italy including the northern city of Trieste was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

"The Austrian government must consider the descendants of those individuals who lived under the monarchy," the local Trentino Tyrolean Autonomous Party said.

Francesco Palermo, an Italian constitutional law expert, said the development could unravel bilateral accords struck in the past between Austria and Italy. "A one-sided initiative of Vienna would definitely be problematic," he said.