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on Focus
official Name
Italian Republic
Capital City
301.277 km²
60 Mil.
Population density
National language
Unitary parliamentary semi-presidential republic
Head of State
President Sergio Mattarella
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni
Il Canto degli Italiani

“There will be no solution to the immigration problem if there isn’t a European answer.”

JUST LIKE GERMANY, Italy belongs to the founding members of the European Union. The southern European country has had its fair share of economic, political, and social problems since the financial crisis. Finally, the Italian economy has started growing again. In an interview with the Diplomatic Magazine, the ambassador H.E. Pietro Benassi talks about the new voting law, Italian foreign policy, and new projects for the expansion of renewable energies.

Ambassador, Italy is still discussing a new voting law that aims to establish more stable political majorities through a majority bonus and a restrictive clause. Given the fact that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stepped down in December 2016, how can these principles be conserved?

In order to set a sign of stability, the Italian political system provided a quick answer to the results of the referendum on December 4, 2016. In a couple of days, a new government was already formed that would carry on the structural reforms that had already been introduced by the previous administration.

On a parliamentary level, there’s been an ongoing discussion between the political powers since January of this year over a possible reform of the Italian voting laws. These are in sync with some of the reform requirements that were formulated by the constitutional court’s decision this past January. The timeframe for passing the law is now being determined by the current legislative period, which ends in February 2018.

In late June of this year, your government said that they would bail out the failing banks Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza with almost 17 billion Euro, at the Italian taxpayers’ expense. Why were there no other alternatives?

I must emphasize that in Italy’s case, the expenses in the public sector have remained at about one billion Euro, since we have a healthy credit system. State intervention for the two mentioned banks runs at 4.8 billion plus guarantees, for which a low net payout is expected. This is a temporary aid, since the currently liquidating banks possess financial assets worth about 11.5 billion Euro. Without state intervention, these banks would have immediately halted their operations. This would have particularly affected credits for small businesses and handicraft businesses. This would have significantly damaged the economy in the corresponding regions, which have a GDP the size of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Slovakia combined.

Apart from its EU partners, Italy’s foreign policy also focuses on the Mediterranean region, the western Balkans, the near East, Afghanistan, the horn of Africa, and Latin America. You also maintain significant economic ties to Russia. What are your most important partner countries?

Even more important than naming our partner countries is the political emphasis on the fact that our most important partner is the international community, the UN, the EU, NATO, and so forth. Our Italian foreign policy is therefore marked by a continuous support of peace and international security. Our political attention is drawn to military missions abroad under the leadership of international organizations.

In times of globalization and within the context of this belief in the international system, Italy supports the strengthening of Europe, in no small part also due to the geopolitical locations between Europe and the Mediterranean, between north and south as well as between east and west. In the context of asymmetrical and new threats (international terrorism, cyber-attacks), Europe must be able to continue promoting democracy and human rights while also guaranteeing and continuing its own political, economic, and social stability.

Per special agreement, Italy and Germany are working on strengthening Europe. A relevant confirmation of this can be found in the mutual path forward taken from the Italian- French-German summit in Berlin and the Ventotene in the summer of 2016 to the Declaration of Rome, which was signed by all EU heads of states on March 25 of this year. The Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni made this sentiment clear during the trilateral meeting with the Chancellor Merkel and the French President Macron in Triest: “The European Union needs a vision and a mutual position in today’s international environment, where an economic upswing is, globally speaking, also accompanied by tensions and difficulties in trade relations, as well as geopolitical misunderstandings. (…) A strong Europe is also a Europe that is able to change and confront security and defense challenges, expand the economic and currency union, strengthen investment capabilities, and find a mutual immigration policy which will be carried out together. Especially in Italy, this sentiment is very powerful.”

“Our industrial strategy is focusing heavily on the three “I’s”: investment, industry 4.0, and internationalization.”

In the EU, your country has promoted sustainable solutions to the refugee crisis. With what measures does your government plan to continue this?

There will be no solution to the immigration problem if there isn’t a European answer, especially since migration is a long-term phenomenon. Migration must be managed, and that process takes time. Europe must determinedly act on the question of immigration, and must exert the same emphasis they displayed during the reform of the European economic and currency union. Responsibility and solidarity must therefore be prioritized and must inseparably be anchored in whatever action plans and agreements are established. This is both in the interest of individual member states, especially in terms of their internal security, and in Europe’s interest in securing its southern borders; a European border, I must emphasize, not just an Italian one. It’s a sea border and not a land border at which Italy has saved countless human lives, sometimes on its own. Our continued efforts are also guaranteed in the future, since the saving of humans in need is an expression of ethical responsibility that transcends any rule of law. The Italian government advocates for a shared responsibility by the entire European Union when it comes to immigration policy. This also extends to interventions in Africa, missions in the Mediterranean area, Libya, and mutual cooperation with NGOs.

Since the global financial crisis in 2008, the Italian economy finally grew again by 0.9 percent two years ago. Germany, which is Italy’s most important importing and exporting partner, is also invested in this growth. What economic branches will Italy be focusing on in the future?

The Italian economy has more movement than expected. According to the latest calculations (June 2017), the growth rate in 2017 was + 1,5 percent. This means a constant increase of the Italian GDP over the past two and a half years and thus the highest growth rate since the beginning of the economic crisis. The same positive trend becomes apparent in the industrial production sector, which grew by 1.1 percent in June 2017, with regard to the last figures of May this year. Despite the unfavorable global economic environment, also our exporters performed surprisingly well and provided important growth: Italy reached the sixth-highest surplus worldwide through a 9.1 percent growth of its non-EU exports (January to June 2017). The German-Italian economic relations have contributed a lot to this. The German global exports often incorporate Italian advances.

That’s why we must mutually invest in the economic branches of the future. Our national strategy Industry 4.0, which was introduced by the Italian government in September 2016, has already achieved optimal results: In the first half of 2017, the incoming orders in the manufacturing sector rose by 13.7 percent. Our industrial strategy is focusing heavily on the three “I’s”: investment, industry 4.0, and internationalization. I would also like to add a “C”: culture.

We are not a country that lacks raw materials – our first raw material is our thousand- year-old cultural heritage. The cultural and creative industries contribute – with 250 billion Euro annually – to 16.7 percent of Italy’s added value. The most dynamic branches are design (+2.5 percent of the added value in 2015-2016), audiovisual media (+2.2 percent), cultural heritages (+2.1 percent), and performing arts (+2 percent). These economic branches entail 1.5 million jobs and six percent of the total employed population. Protecting and promoting our cultural heritage are two of the most prominent economic branches of the future. However, it will require a dynamic supporting policy, as Gustav Mahler said: “Tradition isn’t the worshipping of ashes, but the passing on of the fire.”

A big problem is Italy’s high youth unemployment, of which the south suffers more than the north. How is your government planning to address this?

The fight against youth unemployment and the dismantling of the dual structures of the Italian economy are priorities of the current government. Through the Jobs Act we established a minimum wage, reformed the job market, and supported businesses that employed people long-term. The first, yet not wholly satisfactory, results are already coming in. In March 2017 the youth unemployment reached the lowest rate of the last five years, coming in at 34.1 percent. 42,000 additional young people found employment. In early 2017, the employment growth rate among young people reached the highest value since November 2012, with 17.2 percent. We are on the right path.

One of our focuses is training our youth for the work of the future: six of every ten newborns will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet. The program Crescere in Digitale (Digital Growth), for example, arose out of the collaboration between the government, Google, and Unioncamere with the goal of reaching full employment among young people as well as the digitalization of the SME. Since the program was introduced two years ago, almost 100,000 people registered and 6,222 businesses declared that they’d be ready to hire 8,880 interns immediately. If the businesses hire the interns after their paid internships, the company receives up to 8,060 Euro in subsidies from the state. This program allows young people to gain goal-oriented training and obtain employment after graduation.

After a referendum six years ago, the Italian population spoke out against reintroducing nuclear energy. However, this makes Italy dependent of energy imports, which make up almost 80 percent of its use. These imports are meant to be gradually replaced by solar and wind energy. What projects do you believe are noteworthy?

I’m particularly thinking about the national energy strategy of 2017, for which the process of public consultation started on June 12. Today we already have an energy mix that is oriented toward the future: currently, Italy only contributes to five percent of Europe’s overall use of coal, much less that Germany (34 percent), but also less than Spain and the UK. Furthermore, in the past five years we reduced the number of power stations from 77 to 62. Renewable energies and hydropower represent 40 percent of our current energy mix. However, the other 40 percent of the Italian energy mix, which consists of natural gas, shows how dependent we are of imports from abroad. But here too we have a new national strategy that foresees a greater diversification of energy sources and transportation.

However, given the context of the Clean Energy package and the European Climate and Energy Plan 2030 from the European Commission, we want to be more ambitious. The scenario analyses that have been conducted using our current strategy show that Italy will be able to meet the European 2030 requirements to source 24 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Furthermore, we’ve established a minimum goal of 27 percent, which will make up half of the national energy consumption. We’ve furthermore established measures that will reduce the use of coal in the energy sector to 0 by 2030.

“Renewable energies and hydropower represent 40 percent of our current energy mix.”

Due to the tense job market, Italy has been experiencing a migration of researchers and scientists for some years now. What incentives does your government want to provide in order to convince particularly young graduates to stay?

The academic migration only becomes a problem when it occurs in a singular direction, isn’t circular, and results in so-called brain drain. In order to combat this, the Italian government has foreseen measures for developing human capital in the sciences and in general for assuring the return of qualified researchers, as well as higher investment in R&D.

The Piano Nazionale di Ricerca (PNR) 2015-2020, the national research program, includes the most important guiding principles for research. As of now, two measures are particularly important: the agreement with the European Investment Bank, which was signed in January 2017, in order to constitute a new financial instrument which – outfitted with a starting capital of 200 million Euro – would promote research projects with high technological content in the southern regions of the country.

The second measure is the recently revealed tender of 497 million Euro in order to finance projects from twelve national specialist fields in areas of industrial research as well as experimental development, and in order to support public-private cooperation. In accordance with the PNR, the budget law of 2017 extended the tax depreciation for investments in the areas of research and development – which can amount to up to 50 percent – to the year 2020. The same budget law also introduced a standardization package in order to make Italy attractive to human capital. The existing benefits for returning researchers will be especially important and will be stabilized and consolidated. There will also be special structurally strengthened tax bases for lecturers and researchers who live abroad and return to Italy.

The Piano Industria 4.0 also foresees appropriate measures for universities and research, the goal being to create advanced education programs for 200,000 students and about 1,400 PhD positions for the Industry 4.0. The creation of national competence centres is also foreseen in the plan.

For many years now, Germany and Italy have maintained a strong relationship which is represented in political areas such as in NATO or in cultural areas, such as the existence of 38 German-Italian cultural associations. What mutual achievements are particularly important to you?

In the political area, we must be reminded of Italy’s and Germany’s constant engagement as the founding members of the European Union, especially because issues such as the Schengen agreement or the mutual Euro currency have become key topics in the context of populist tendencies and a general Europe fatigue. This is becoming particularly clear for all European citizens as they face the immediate effects of globalisation.

The contributions to peace and international security are also very important. Our soldiers have been active in international missions overseen by the UN and NATO, from Kosovo to Afghanistan, and for decades they’ve contributed to bringing stability to regions of conflict.

Concerning our cultural relationship, Germany and Italy have a long history of friendship and fascination for each other. Therefore we have established a strong network of relationships in many different areas. Our cooperation in the cultural field is very diverse, and I know from my work in Berlin that there are many active cooperations with Germany. Together with the network of consulates and Italian cultural institutes we provide a diverse program with which we try to present the many sides of Italian culture to a German and – in Berlin particularly – an international audience. These individual cultural associations can therefore contribute to civil society on the ground.

Nowadays, mutual curiosity and empathy are more important than ever. We live in turbulent times, and cliches cannot gain the upper hand. All societies must react and act together in the face of globalization’s challenges. Germany and Italy are not only economic partners, but also partners in the questions of what Europe’s future will look like. The Villa Vigoni, the German-Italian center for European Excellence, is a good example of this. It offers a platform for an exchange about Europe. The Roma Manifesto emphasizes how important it is to give the young generations space in this debate. They are the future of Europe, and for them we must protect our past achievements.

Italy’s culture, from its art and music to its food, is famous worldwide. Nonetheless, public spending in Italy for culture and conservation lies significantly below the EU average. How is this possible?

I know that Italy’s state budget on issues such as cultural conservation have been a topic of public discussion in Germany for some years now. We’re about to re-organize our cultural and museum landscape and create offers that are more appealing to young people. I’m thinking about the Bonus Cultura, that provides 500 Euro for all expenses that are cultural in nature, in order to bring them closer to our cultural heritage, which is part of the global cultural heritage, and to let them develop a sense of responsibility for it.

We also support private investments in culture with two new programs: the program Cultura Crea promotes the process of developing an entrepreneurial project in the cultural tourism industry, in order to support non-profit companies that aim to use the cultural resources in southern Italy more efficiently and make them more accessible to a greater public. Art Bonus, on the other hand, creates tax incentives in the form of tax credits (65 percent) for all – private individuals, non-profit organizations, or businesses – that directly contribute to the conservation of our cultural heritage through donations. These are only three examples that show the various ways we attempt to promote and maintain our culture that isn’t reflected in our spending.

Traditionally, Italy has been a popular travel destination in Europe for centuries. Whether it’s the Alps, the Adriatic Sea, the bustling city of Rome, or the circa 100,000 monuments – there are countless opportunities for tourists. What would you personally recommend?

Since 2017 was declared the “Year of Borghi” by our Ministry for Culture and Tourism, I would recommend travellers to skip the big cities full of tourists and instead visit the hidden “Borghi.” These are small towns that were founded in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance close to castles or feudal estates and that have retained their authentic character to this day. These hidden beauties are true pearls amidst the Italian countryside, and they’ve remained timeless and untouched.

But Italy really has so much to offer that I do not want to restrict anyone and would prefer to invite people to discover the country in their own, personal way. Let me recall the words of the American writer Elizabeth Spencer: “Everyone who has a dream should go to Italy. It doesn’t matter if you think that the dream is dead and buried, in Italy it will rise and walk again.”

Interview Markus Feller

Pictures: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 = Mohamed El-Sauaf