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Big ideas in the land of Boz.


Democracy is a form of government that allows us to work out our disagreements without resorting to violence and war. That terse phrase resonates profound truth for me. I heard it during my stay in Bolzano/Bozen (capital of the northern Italian province of Bolzano) this past summer but, truth be told, I heard it outside of the classroom. I will return to the source of this comment in a bit.

I had learned much over my two weeks at an international summer school about minority rights and cultural diversity issues in the European Union. From June 21 to July 2, 2010, other people and I, ranging in age from mid-20s to early-50s and coming from 14 different countries, had gathered for an intensive workshop to hear presentations about--and discuss in break-out, case study sessions--the most pressing social and political issues facing the European Union. These issues were not unlike those occupying the political and academic spheres in Canada; issues such as:

* what constitutes citizenship in the modern, liberal state?

* what are the reasonable and defensible limits to the accommodation of religious and cultural practices?

* what rights can and should accrue to members of minority groups within the modern liberal state?

* how, if at all, should individual rights be reconciled with group rights?

* should individual rights, indeed, be reconciled with the rights of a group at all?

The session was hosted by the European Academy (EURAC) which is a private, multi-disciplinary research centre located just outside the historical district of Bolzano/Bozen with stunning views of the beautiful Dolomite Mountains all around. Located in the northern Italian autonomous region of Trento-South Tyrol, Bolzano/Bozen (Boz is my affectionate pet name for it) is the capital of the province called South Tyrol. South Tyrol is majority German speaking; the other province in the region, Trento, is majority Italian speaking. Trento-South Tyrol provides a successful model for linguistic and national minority group accommodation in a part of Europe that has been anything but a model for co-operation and accommodation throughout its bloody history. Indeed, as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, German-speaking secessionists in South Tyrol were bombing buildings and killing police officers in a campaign aimed at separating the majority German-speaking province of the region. That should sound familiar to Canadians or students of Canadian history.

In fact, in a lot of ways, you could say that Boz (a small city of only slightly more than 100,000 souls) was really a microcosm for the hatred, nationalism, and tribalism that characterized Europe throughout much of the period of history when the nation-state (based on the notion of one common language and one Volk) dominated the political discourse. Indeed, that discourse persisted until the fledgling, early attempts at European union in the aftermath of the Second World War--the bloodiest and most destructive war in history. Early talks and treaties during the 1950s and 1960s laid the framework for the extensive political and economic reality that is the modern reality of the European Union: a network of 27 nation-states that some visionaries dare imagine to be the forerunner for a United States of Europe. Unfortunately, as those more recent, bloodily savage wars in the Balkan peninsula of the 1990s showed us, historical enmities and tribalism still exist.

Democracy is a form of government that allows us to work out our disagreements without resorting to violence and war. I think that statement rather nicely captures the harder edges of what political freedom means: those harder edges where one finds the awkward and difficult issues that concern identity, culture, and political/legal equality. These issues concern us all, and thus, can provide an opportunity to find common ground. However, they are the issues that can also divide us and allow things to spiral out of control if we are not mindful of the need to engage in principled, honest dialogue.

Democracy is a form of government that allows us to work out our disagreements without resorting to violence and war. That phrase also applies to those other harder edges--the boundaries of civilization as set by rule of law and principles of governance--which must be set, must be defended no matter the cost, in order to engage in the kinds of difficult discussions, deal-making, and power-brokering that keep those darker areas of political and social discourse in check. I refer here, of course, to regionalism, nationalism, and tribalism.

As I had alluded above, that description of the hard tasks facing a democracy did not originate in one of the dozens of sessions or discussions that I had participated in while attending the EURAC summer school about minority rights. Rather, that phrase about democracy as a means for resolving disagreement without resorting to violence originated with an energetic young German student. We were talking about cultural identity within a democratic context as we downed red wine and ate grilled beef at a party up in the Dolomite Mountains following the end of the EURAC summer school. Stefan said he could not claim credit for being the originator of the description of what democracy is all about. Be that as it may, though, I must give credit to him then for pulling the phrase out of his memory.

In reflecting on what I learned from my EURAC experience, the following dominant themes emerged for me:

1. this tenuous, fragile experiment in economic and political integration known as the European Union must endure and, indeed, should expand in scope;

2. there is a growing body of jurisprudence at the level of the European Court of Human Rights that has profound relevance for the growing concept of the universality of human rights within the democratic European context. Indeed, these European Court decisions are superseding the decisions of courts at the level of the individual nation-state members and are, as well, taking priority over the national policies of member states; and

3. the political and constitutional arrangements in South Tyrol provide a tangible example of a possible model for the eventual peaceful and just resolution of sources of sectarian strife such as that which exists in Northern Ireland or sources of ethnic nationalism such as exists in the Basque region of Spain.

The way ahead on difficult issues of cultural and ethnic identity within the New Europe will not be easy. However, as I contemplate the new friendships which I have made with the students and academics who are citizens of this New Europe--all of whom speak at least three languages and who increasingly see identity as a fluid and ever-evolving quality--I cannot help but feel optimistic for the future. I have to. I recall chatting with a Bosnian academic named Dzemal Sokolovic at an international buffet night that we had on the second Monday of our summer school. This man shared with me that dozens of his relatives had been killed during the Bosnian-Serb conflict of the 1990s. What I could have expected to hear was cynicism and despair from this man. Instead, he expressed profound hope that the young generation of New Europeans, with their multi-national and multilinguistic identities to guide the way, will provide leadership not only to the New Europe but, indeed, provide an example to the world.

Brian Seaman, LLB is a Research Associate with the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre in Calgary, Alberta.
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Title Annotation:Feature Report on Multiculturalism; Bolzano, Italy
Author:Seaman, Brian
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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