Since he arrived to the country almost ten months ago, the Italian Ambassador to Serbia, Carlo Lo Cascio has always underlined the importance of planning and coordination of various activities to maintain the high relevance of official Rome in a country crossed by geopolitical strategies, even the discordant ones. At the end of the presentation of the programme apropos the celebrations of 140 years of diplomatic relations and 10 years of strategic partnership between Italy and Serbia, Ambassador’s face clearly expressed his satisfaction with rather unexpected and perhaps unprecedented results. In February, Italy has presented its plans regarding economic, cultural and scientific initiatives in Serbia to be implemented along the whole year.
Ambassador Lo Cascio, you are a knowledgeable expert on the Balkans with this being your second time in Belgrade (you were a Counsellor in the period from 2005 to 2008). How would you describe Italy’s political investments in the Balkans, and Serbia in particular?
I think Italy had made a far-sighted choice when, some time ago, it decided to make an all-around investment in the Balkans, before others showed similar interest. Over ten years ago, we saw the potential of Serbia of a country that has strategic importance for regional balance, that has many similarities to us, especially in the economy. This was an important wager. Today, thanks also to its proximity to Italy, Serbia, which is geographically-wise in Europe even though it is not an EU member yet institutionally, continues to play an important role in relations between Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean. We are here to support Belgrade in the European integration process and to encourage our Serbian friends to undertake the necessary reforms.
In 2019, we are marking 140 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Italy and Serbia and 10 years since the establishment of the strategic partnership that binds Rome and Belgrade together. Can you make an assessment of this for our readers? What are the future scenarios of the relationship between Serbia and Italy?
We are pleased to have promoted and nurtured this special relationship between Rome and Belgrade, aimed at intensifying existing relations in all fields. In recent years, there have been agreements aimed at establishing and widening collaboration in many areas: from the fight against corruption and organized crime, to cooperation in science and technology, to name but a few very different examples. In terms of economy, I would like to remind you that, according to the Serbian Statistical Office, in 2018, the external trade between Italy and Serbia exceeded, for the first time ever, the record 4 billion euro. We are a reliable partner and a strong supporter of the European integration of Serbia, which became an official EU candidate in 2014.
We hope that Serbia will rapidly continue along the reform path, not only in the economy but also in administration and the rule of law, which is in the primary interest of the citizens, as well as aim at expediting the accession negotiations. Italy and Serbia enjoy excellent bilateral relations and we are here to continue to strengthen this cooperation. I see very promising areas to focus on – I would like to mention again scientific and technological research, which proved to be an innovative field of our relations with potential positive implications also on the economy of both countries.
This year Italy will take over the presidency over the Central European Initiative, the largest forum for regional cooperation and integration in Central, Eastern and Balkan Europe, based in Trieste. What will this mean in concrete terms for Serbia and for Italy’s diplomatic action in Serbia?
The Italian Presidency of the CEI in 2019 provides a further opportunity for Italy to promote the European perspective in Serbia and at the same time, to further represent Belgrade’s expectations regarding EU accession. Traditionally, non-EU countries participating in the Initiative, as is now the case with Serbia, see this organisation as a valuable opportunity to acquire EU standards. The dimension of regional cooperation, the dialogue between countries “close” to each other, as well as the dialogue between “macro-regions”, are principles that inspired the foundation of the CEI and at the same time, they are the priority criteria that the European Commission takes into account when measuring the progress of a country in the process of rapprochement with the EU. Moreover, bear in mind that the CEI’s activities are spread through the three governmental, parliamentary and business dimensions, as this is one more instrument at our disposal to strengthen regional cooperation and the European path of Serbia.
In terms of economy, I would like to remind you that, according to the Serbian Statistical Office, in 2018, the external trade between Italy and Serbia exceeded, for the first time ever, the record 4 billion euro.
On February 7th, you gave a press conference at the Embassy to promote the main cultural and economic events of Italy in Serbia. Could you tell us more about that? What are the criteria for this year’s events? Will there be a link between the celebration of the double anniversary and the usual events, such as the Italian Cuisine in the World Week?
The celebration of the 140th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and the 10th anniversary of the signing of the strategic partnership agreement are a special occasion to reaffirm the pervasiveness of the culture, the coming together and the creativity in all sectors. I would like to mention the exhibition “The School of Bernini and the Roman Baroque” which will be staged in less than a month, on March 7th, as one of the many examples.
Serbian audiences will have the incredible opportunity to see more than 50 masterpieces that define the Baroque as the first true movement of modern European art. We would like this exhibition to be representative of the spirit of the entire cultural offering for this year – beauty and innovation as the cornerstones of a programme that ranges from art and music to literature and food, from research to design. In this calendar of events, everything is based on culture as a meeting point; an approach that is particularly successful here in Serbia. The “Italian way of living” is that cultural heritage that defines us, and that makes Italy “a cultural superpower” so admired and loved all over the world, also and especially in Serbia, where we have a very attentive audience. So we came up with a unique and quite diverse selection of events in all segments.
The extraordinary opportunity to admire historical works, the offer of quality concerts, and great artists (Eros Ramazzotti, Isabella Rossellini and others) coming to Belgrade are all events of particular importance but not exhaustive to the Italian offer, because it this offer also includes the economic and commercial sector. For example, Italy’s participation in the Novi Sad Agricultural Fair – as a partner country – will be accompanied by a concert conducted by Maestro Marciano.
Until now, Serbia has often been presented only as a country with low wages and low business costs, and where one wants to relocate production with low added value, perhaps by closing their factories in Italy. How would you present your country to a company wishing to assess the feasibility of its future investment?
Since the beginning of my term in the office, I decided to devote particular attention to assisting Italian companies and supporting internationalization. To achieve concrete results in this area, it is necessary to present the potential of a country from an economic point of view, in a clear and realistic manner. In Serbia, the cost of production is relatively lower than in other European countries, that’s true, but basing important investment choices solely on this aspect would be short-sighted. In order to be successful, internationalization efforts must focus on medium to long term period, that is, it must be sustainable. The cost of labour or energy can vary, even in a very short period of time, so we must look at factors of greater strategic value.
In the numerous meetings with Italian companies, promoted by the Embassy, we have always tried to present Serbia as an evolving market, which offers many opportunities for development for our companies. I am referring in particular to the privileged geographical position, to the strong innovative and technological drive in the country, to the human and professional qualities of Serbian workers, and to the prospects of commercial integration at regional level, but also and above all, in the framework of the single European market. This is a matter of disseminating information among the business community, which is already more prepared and aware that one would have us believe, in order to counter simplistic and often misleading information.
The Italian entrepreneurial action is often the result of individual choices and it translates into a scattered presence. Working as a system, as a team, is a constant and often ignored appeal that can be heard in the most varied contexts. In concrete terms, how do you think the Italian presence in the country can be made more cohesive in order to achieve greater overall results?
The enterprise and creativity of our companies, especially SMEs, are characteristics that, in most cases, benefit the Italian economic action abroad. The ability to find market niches, to bring quality to production processes and to integrate into territories that other partners consider “difficult”, are fundamental elements, not only for the growth of Italian exports, but also for the implementation of our foreign direct investments. The total number of our companies – and this is also true for Serbia – is, therefore, higher if compared to that of other countries, although the size of individual companies is on average smaller. This does not mean that SMEs are not able to coordinate or act synergistically. The development model based on industrial districts is a demonstration of the Italian ability to “make a system” and can certainly be replicated in Serbia.
It is clear that the Italian institutions and bodies present in the country – primarily the Embassy – are expected to make a constant commitment to facilitate joint actions and initiatives aimed at strengthening the Italian business community as a whole. Precisely for this reason, and since my arrival in Belgrade, I have invited all these bodies, starting from the ICE Office, through the Chamber of Commerce and Confindustria Serbia to be proactive and to develop their activities with a perspective of cooperation and exchange, both with Italian operators and both in relations with the Serbian authorities.
The events of recent years have shown us that simple relocations do not bring great profits and can sometimes even prove to be failures. We must, therefore, focus on sharing the know-how, on research and new technologies, and on the development of territories.
Beyond investments of various kinds, Italy remains a hotbed of good practices in the administrative, cultural and social field to which Serbia pays great attention. Just think of the commitment of Dr Raffaele Cantone, of the National Anti-Corruption Authority, in Serbia. In which other areas have this been activated, and do you intend to promote this transfer of good practices from Italy to Serbia?
I am very satisfied with the results we have achieved so far in Serbia in the economic field, but – as you rightly pointed out – the support that Italy guarantees Serbia in the legal-administrative field is just as important. One of the main tools, through which our country helps Serbia with the reform process with a view to the accession to the European Union, is that of administrative twinning, financed by the EU itself. The project which involved the anti-corruption authorities of our two countries, and which has just ended, has allowed Belgrade to embark on fundamental strengthening of public action in the fight against corruption, which must now continue, also in coordination with other European partners.
In the meantime, work has begun on another important twinning project with the aim of further development of policies for the protection of free competition in Serbia, thanks to the valuable guidance of our Competition and Market Authority. Italy also works closely with the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture, which has developed over time a solid relationship of collaboration with our MIPAAFT and the recently established Ministry of the Environment. There are many initiatives on the cultural level too. Just scroll through the list of events organized on the occasion of the anniversary of 140 years of bilateral diplomatic relations to get an idea of the incredible work done by Italy in the field of cultural promotion.
What results do you plan to achieve with regard to the extension and quality of the internationalization of Italian companies in Serbia?
Each ambassador has a desire to contribute to the consolidation of bilateral relations between his country and the country of accreditation. In Serbia, this boost is primarily due to the greater integration of the economies of our two countries. Serbia is not only a small market in south-eastern Europe, but also a hub for the economic development of the entire Balkan region. For this reason, when I refer to the greater integration, I am referring to, on one hand, Serbia’s growing interchange with the single European market and, on the other, of the creation of common value chains between Serbian and Italian companies, as well as between Balkan and European companies in general. This has a fundamental importance for developing a mature economic partnership and for guaranteeing a balanced growth both in Italy and in Serbia.
The events of recent years have shown us that simple relocations do not bring great profits and can sometimes even prove to be failures. We must, therefore, focus on sharing the know-how, on research and new technologies, and on the development of territories. These are all factors that need to be implemented through partnerships and joint projects. I am sure that the proximity, not only geographical, between Italy and Serbia will continue to provide a solid basis for new investments. Companies wishing to enter this market can count on the full support from the Embassy and the entire “Italian System” in Serbia.
Interviewer: Biagio Carrano
He began his diplomatic career in 1990, and his professional career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Directorate General for Development Cooperation. His first assignment abroad was as in the capacity of the Second Commercial Secretary, then First Commercial Secretary, in Bonn in 1994. In 1997, he became First Commercial Secretary in Sarajevo, and then re-appointed to the same office as a Director in 2001, after which he returned to Rome.
After 2001, he worked at the Directorate General for Multilateral Political Affairs and Human Rights, and in 2005, he continued his professional career abroad as the First Counsellor at the Embassy in Belgrade. In 2008, he became Ambassador to Maputo, also accredited to Mbabane, Swaziland.
In 2012, he returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the Director General for Globalization and Global Issues and later Coordinator for EU-Sub-Saharan Africa relations, while, in 2013, he was appointed Head of Unit for the Balkan Countries at the CEI and IAI. In 2014, he took over the role of Deputy Director General for the European Union and Central Director for European Countries. Since 2015, he was the Deputy of the Director General for the European Union.
Ambassador Lo Cascio was awarded the title of Official Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2007.
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