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‘Investments en route, Destination Italy’. Interview with Emma Bonino (Il Mondo)

“The message we want to convey is simple: Italy is a country with powers of attraction because it believes in its resources and wants to function better than before. But to do that, we need, first of all, to become a somewhat more normal country”. Emma Bonino is not the type to get discouraged. Although the “Destinazione Italia” plan did not get off to a brilliant start, overshadowed as it was by the risk of the government falling and by the controversy aroused by the Telecom and Alitalia stories, the Foreign Minister isn’t giving up. In fact, she’s giving it a second start.

“The implementation of the government’s plan to attract international investment is fully under way, even though many media channels, and many politicians, find other issues more interesting. A public consultation is being conducted as we speak into each and every measure in the plan: citizens, associations and businesses can add to, comment on and suggest changes. And the government will take their input into account during the implementation process”. But what’s the timescale? “The plan was adopted on 19 September and from now until the end of the year we need to transform it into laws and administrative provisions”. In the offices of the Farnesina, the 50 measures contained in the plan represent the operational face of the “diplomacy for growth” that Bonino has made the focus of her ministry since she took office.

Now that you’re at the six months milestone, are you pleased with the results achieved?

We’ve been working to ensure that diplomacy for growth becomes a priority for the entire government. As soon as the government was installed we convened a meeting, the third, of the “Cabina di Regia” for international Italy and in that forum established priorities and goals. For example, to achieve 545 billion euros in exports in 2015 [ed.’s note: in 2012 Italy’s exports amounted to around 390 billion euros]. We also decided to organise more missions, both by the institutions and by businesses. To date, we’ve seen a system-level mission to the United Arab Emirates, in which 130 businesses took part, and the mission to Canada, a growing country that we hadn’t visited for 12 years.

And then we have successes that can be measured in the immediate term, like the contract worth nearly 700 million euros won by Ansaldo in Saudi Arabia back in July, to build the metropolitan line in Riyadh. Since May, the Farnesina has reported on nearly 3500 tenders posted abroad. And Italian companies have won 19 contracts, each worth over 50 million euros, thanks to the support provided by the Foreign Ministry and its foreign network. The signing of the agreements on the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which will bring oil from Azerbaijan to the Apulian coast, is of major strategic value, because once it begins operating it will increase the security of our energy supply.

Destinazione Italia was intended to be the jewel in the crown of the diplomacy for growth effort. But its launch was overshadowed by the reactions to the Telecom and Alitalia affairs. Affairs that were a near-perfect illustration of the “double syndrome” that, according to Prime Minister Letta, the Plan was designed to combat. First, the “outlet syndrome”, whereby attracting investment means selling assets off cheaply to foreigners; and second, the Fort Apache syndrome, which prompts people to defend the status quo.

I’d like to ask a question of my own: what is the national interest that the government is tasked with protecting? As I see it, in both the cases you mention the executive’s goal must be to ensure that citizens and businesses have cost-effective access to important services such as telephone networks and airlines. Regardless of the colour of the flag flown by the company providing the service. If it succeeds in this intent, the government has done its duty. In the case of Alitalia, if the national interest is to ensure that our country has enough routes, then in both industry and strategic terms we need to place our bets on hubs. We mustn’t forget that in just over a year we’ll be hosting the EXPO: and without hubs on which important routes can converge we’ll have serious problems in bringing the tourists and investors we hope to attract into Italy. Italy’s hubs need more flights, especially medium- and long-haul, to achieve their full value and add value to Italy.

Italy attracts just over 1% of global investment stock: a mere trifle. How will the 50 measures contained in the Plan help create a more welcoming environment for foreign businesses and capital?

The obstacles standing in the way of inward investment are the same ones that are holding Italian businesses back, and can be summarised in just one word: uncertainty. With Destinazione Italia, we’ll provide a reliable timescale for tax issues and permits; labour legislation that is easier to understand; legal frameworks for civil and taxation issues that do not penalise business interests.

The issue isn’t just quantitative: what about the quality of the investment we want to attract.

Attracting inward investment means being able to do many things that we can’t do alone. Think of a multinational that chooses Italy to open a research centre along with one of our universities. Or a foreigner who decides to showcase an Italian cultural artefact instead of leaving it languishing in a storeroom. Or an investor who places capital in an Italian company that’s competitive in industrial terms but is facing financial difficulties as a result of the crisis.

On the other, but equally crucial, side of the internationalisation of Italian business, what initiatives has the ministry taken?

We’re doing a lot, and we’re trying to work more efficiently, with resources that are becoming evermore scarce. First, we’re providing support through our embassies and consulates, in which the ICE units are now based.

We’re there at the side of Italian businesses, especially small and medium-sized ones, to help them bid in tenders and identify key contacts in the institutions. We’re engaged in promotional initiatives: we’re involving businesses in country presentations and business forums, and we’re trying to bring businesses along on institutional missions to the most important markets.

The use of the diplomatic network for commercial purposes has caused many commentators to turn up their noses, convinced as they are that ambassadors should be engaged in more noble tasks. How would you respond?

We have a new generation of diplomats, with a growing number of women, who are increasingly aware of the way their role in boosting Italy’s international presence has changed. They know very well that economic and cultural diplomacy are just as important as the traditional version.

A reorganisation of the embassy and consular system has been announced. Three new missions are being opened in Asia, but 14 in Europe, America and Australia are being closed. Viewed from this perspective, it looks more like a cost-cutting operation.

We’re refocusing our network abroad and bringing it more into line with the needs of the “country system”. I think a country’s network of embassies and consulates needs to reflect its future presence, not a memory of its past. So we’re closing some consulates in Europe, where Italians feel at home, so that we can open new missions in Asia, where our economic interests have a growing need of support: a new embassy in Turkmenistan and two new consulates, in China (Chongqing) and Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City).

No-one could fail to note that the international framework does not seem overly favourable to our commercial relations. The instability in the Mediterranean and the Middle East is placing our interests in the region at risk, especially in Libya but also in Tunisia and Egypt. And then there are several cases – the marines in India, Battisti in Brazil and the Shalabayeva affair in Kazakhstan – that are complicating our relations with countries of great economic interest. How do you plan to tackle these situations?

The issues involved in each case are very different and require different responses. All countries, from time to time, experience periods or episodes of political tension, in some cases with important trade partners. We’re trying to address these situations as best we can, with due respect for the law and the dignity of the people concerned, without giving up in the face of political chaos. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are each different and we need to use instruments of varying complexity in our dealings with them.

Each of the individual cases you mentioned has its own story, which deserves further and lengthier analysis. We still enjoy a good commercial relationship with India. As with other countries in Asia, there is great unexpressed potential. I wouldn’t define the case of the marines as an obstacle on this pathway to growth, but it is without doubt a thorny question to which the executive is devoting the utmost attention. We have always upheld Italy’s jurisdiction in this case and continue to reiterate it in all the relevant international fora. Just a few days ago the special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, went back to India to take every step necessary with the authorities there to ensure that the pre-trial investigations are completed in the shortest time possible.

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