Austria’s chancellor flew into a diplomatic row with Italy on Tuesday over his government’s plans to offer passports to German-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol in Italy.
The dispute overshadowed Sebastian Kurz’s visit to Rome and a meeting with Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister.
Italy accused its northern neighbour of “anachronistic revanchism” over the proposed law, which would enable German-speaking Italian citizens in South Tyrol to apply for Austrian citizenship while keeping their existing Italian citizenship.
South Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1919 when it was given to Italy as a prize for fighting on the Allied side during the First World War.
Italian and Austrian forces fought a series of bitter, high altitude battles in South Tyrol and the neighbouring province of Trentino and the issue remains emotionally charged for both countries. For Italy, the dual citizenship proposal is an unnecessary provocation by Austria’s ruling conservative and far-Right coalition, smacking of dreams of a greater Austria.
Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Italy’s foreign minister, cancelled a trip to Vienna, where he was due to have met his Austrian counterpart.
The Italian foreign ministry said the idea of granting Austrian citizenship to German-speakers in South Tyrol “risks assuming potential characteristics of an anachronistic revanchism.”
The initiative "damages the climate of serenity and mutual trust" between Austria and Italy, the ministry said.
But the Austrian chancellor said he could not understand what all the fuss was about.
“Italy has no reason to be upset. Many South Tyroleans would like to have dual citizenship. We’ve always made it clear that we will act in agreement with Rome,” Mr Kurz said.
Rome said the timing of the Austrian proposal was particularly insensitive, coming 100 years after the end of the First World War.
Michaela Biancofiore, an MP from the centre-Right Forza Italia party, denounced what she called “unacceptable and inopportune attacks on Italian sovereignty.”
When the idea was first mooted by the Austrian government last December, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, a Right-wing party, likened it to "an illicit invasion" of South Tyrol.
“The idea of allowing a part of Italy to be inhabited by a majority with Austrian citizenship is crazy. It would be secession in disguise. This is a shameful affront,” she said.
Under the Austrian plan, citizenship would also be offered to speakers of Ladin, an ancient dialect derived from Latin.
Around 60 per cent of the inhabitants of South Tyrol speak German while four per cent speak Ladin.