Exclusive interview with the Italian Ambassador in Belgrade, H.E. Carlo Lo Cascio: “Italy and Serbia work well together: it is time to reap even more ambitious fruits from this cooperation.
“It has been a very positive year that, I would say, we “lived it dangerously” because of the amount of work that I, my colleagues and our collaborators have done on re-launching political dialogue and deepen the economic cooperation between the two countries within the framework of the celebration of 140 years of diplomatic relations and ten years of strategic partnership“.
The Italian Ambassador to Serbia, H.E. Carlo Lo Cascio, has been living and working in Serbia for quite some time. Already on mission in Belgrade between 2005 and 2008, he was then the head of the Balkans Unit of Farnesina (Italy’s Foreign Ministry), and since 2018, he has been head of mission with very clear objectives: “I would like to point out that, beyond any rhetoric of circumstance, we have developed a very precise strategy, which has taken the form of a full calendar of events, initiatives and official visits – to highlight the role of Italy in Serbia and to better respond to the activism of our competitor countries. So, it is essential to be proactive and to act as a system to face these new challenges. We have thus also defined a road map for 2020”.
It is no coincidence that we met today, Thursday, December 19th, on the day when Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic is in Rome for the summit that concludes the Italian Presidency of the Central European Initiative.
“In fact, it is no coincidence, but it is the result of work involving all Italian diplomacy because, as Minister Enzo Amendola recalled during his recent visit to Belgrade, Serbia remains a fundamental country within the Union’s enlargement strategy. Global balances are changing rapidly and enlargement policy must be the continent’s response to these dynamics,” the Ambassador says.
Just a few days ago, on December 16th, President Mattarella reminded us that the European Union would not be complete without the Western Balkan countries. Yet, the French veto at the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia has also rekindled the already growing euroscepticism in Serbia. What guidelines and actions does Italy intend to implement in Serbia in 2020 to reaffirm the prospect of integration and also with regard to its European partners?
“The “historical error” made at the October meeting of the Council of the European Union, to use President Conte’s effective expression, risked casting heavy shadows on the entire enlargement process and, above all, on the disoriented Belgrade and Podgorica, which have been aligning with the Union’s Acquis for years.
Italy reacted immediately and, a few days ago, Minister Amendola pointed out that our country is ready to engage in a constructive discussion to review the methodology of the negotiation process with the aim of opening accession negotiations with Tirana and Skopije in the spring, while preserving what Belgrade and Podgorica have done so far. This objective is also clearly stated in the letter sent by Foreign Minister Di Maio to the President of the Commission; an initiative promoted by Italy and six other countries and then signed by fifteen members of the Union which calls for an improvement in the effectiveness of the enlargement process. The basic assumption is simple – renouncing the enlargement process would send a wrong signal that would increase instability in the region with counterproductive repercussions not only on the Balkan ‘chessboard’.
Together with the European Delegation led by the Italian Sem Fabrizi, Italy has worked hard to identify points of dialogue between the government and the opposition leading to participatory and fully legitimate elections. What will be the next steps to foster a democratic dialectic between the parties?
“We appreciate the effort made by the delegates of the European Parliament to promote a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition aimed at defining shared rules. There are signs indicating certain steps have been made in this direction. Now, it is a question of continuing along this path and this is up to both the government and the opposition”.
2019 was a year of strong revival of the Italian protagonism in Serbia, highlighted by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s official visit to Belgrade last March, about a decade after the previous visit of one of his counterparts. What results can be expected in 2020 after these intense twelve months?
“President Conte was the only Prime Minister from an EU country to visit both Belgrade and Tirana in 2019, in the aftermath of the October meeting of the Council of the EU. He invited Zaev and Rama to Rome and a few days later, President Mattarella met with his Macedonian counterpart Pendarovski. During that period, the Head of Government met with Prime Minister Brnabic and Prime Minister Markovic on the sidelines of the INCE Summit. These are coordinated actions that validate Italy’s commitment to the Western Balkans. President Conte also spoke with the Croatian Prime Minister Plenkovic, in view of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU that starts on January 1st.
Minister of the Environment Sergio Costa’s visit to Belgrade in late October has facilitated the implementation of important documents in the segment of environment between Italy and Serbia under the auspices of the strategy of the green new deal, which was also highlighted by Minister Amendola with his participation in the seminar organized just three days ago by Confindustria Serbia.
Looking ahead and beyond the election next spring, our hope would be to also re-launch the trilateral concertation between Italy, Serbia and Albania (the last meeting was held in Belgrade in February 2018), which has proved to be an important instrument in boosting regional cooperation and the Eurointegration process of the two countries, as well as a support for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.
Furthermore, I believe that the time has come to resume the practice of the intergovernmental summits between Rome and Belgrade, because cooperation between the two countries crosses all sectors and there is constant joint work on issues such as migratory flows, the European perspective and relations with neighbouring countries. Italy and Serbia work well together: a mutual feeling of friendship and affinity creates the best conditions for dealing with the most complex situations and problems”.
In the last three years, Serbia’s economic and social framework has been changing rapidly – the construction and IT sectors are driving significant economic growth, especially in Belgrade and Novi Sad, while the strong emigration makes it much more difficult now to find both workforce and staff with adequate skills. In this context, how can the presence of Italian entrepreneurs and the axes of economic collaboration between the two countries be re-thought?
“Italy firmly remains the second largest trading partner of Serbia. In 2018, we recorded a record external trade valued at more than €4 billion. This year, in line with the ongoing trends, the numbers will not be so high, but the trade level will remain satisfactory. Furthermore, the positive trend of Italian exports to Serbia will be confirmed. On a more general level, this is not only a growth in terms of numbers, but also in terms of integration with the economic and social fabric of the country.
In terms of the most significant moments of this year, related to the economy, I would like to underline Italy’s participation at the International Agricultural Fair of Novi Sad, in the role of a partner country, with over 30 companies. Thanks to ICE, the Veneto Region also participated in the Fair. As for the interest of the Italian business community, in the last month and a half, I counted no less than 100 Italian companies that visited Serbia during official missions with the view of establishing contacts and have meetings. For this reason, during my recent meeting with President Vucic, I recalled that the Italian model of Small and Medium Enterprises can become a reference for the development strategy of entrepreneurship in Serbia.
From our side, there is also constant action in all sectors – we are at the final stages of signing a bilateral agreement in the field of infrastructure, while some Italian companies that are successful in the IT sector have achieved excellent results in the country.
Serbia accounts for about 50% of foreign direct investments in the region and it is true that there are starting to be difficulties in the search for skilled labour. However, it is also true that there are still pockets of unemployment in the country and that the state bodies aim to direct new investments there to rebalance the dynamics of growth”.
Italy has always aroused a strong intellectual fascination with the Serbs. The exhibition “Inspired by Italy” was further proof of this. Besides the more hedonistic aspects (gastronomy, fashion, etc.), what are the elements of Italian soft power that you see as having the greatest impact in Serbia?
“Thanks to the excellent work of the Italian Cultural Institute and many Serbian institutions, the cultural and scientific cooperation between the two countries continues to develop with very good and innovative initiatives. Among this year’s initiatives, I would like to mention the exhibition on “Bernini and the Roman School” at the National Museum, which was the most visited exhibition in 2019 in Serbia; the Italian participation in film festivals; the exhibition “Passi” by Alfredo Pirri at the Cineteca Nazionale; the exhibition “Inspired by Italy” which was staged in collaboration with the Matica Srpska Gallery in Novi Sad and hosted by our Cultural Institute; the great Italian operas on show in Belgrade and other cities; the concerts of Alessandra Celletti and Mauro Maur, as well as concerts by jazz and pop legends such as Paolo Fresu and Eros Ramazzotti respectively. All these events have made Belgrade a place where the Italian culture continues to fully live on.
We are committed to intercepting the demand of Italy and Italianness that shows no sign of diminishing despite the growth of the cultural offer coming from other countries. It is, as I have already mentioned, a feeling of affinity that can be clearly seen, for instance, during the Italian language courses for children that the Cultural Institute holds on Saturdays and especially in the excellent preparation of the students of the bilingual classes at the 3rd Gymnasium of Belgrade. These are young people who participate in cultural exchanges, deepen their mutual knowledge and could yield future leaders of the country. Investing in culture is an investment that bears the longest-lasting fruits”.
You are considered a great expert on the Balkans and Serbia in particular. In addition to political and economic aspects, what artistic discoveries have you found in Serbia during your tenure here? What would you recommend people who want to better understand this country to read, listen to or see?
Since I returned to Belgrade, I have been keenly interested in the paintings of Petar Lubarda. I have brought many of my guests and friends to visit the Lubard House Museum and everyone has been impressed by the versatility of his work.
Everyone should read “The Bridge over the River Drina” by Ivo Andric. Decades after my first reading, I still carry with me the impressions many references to customs, attitudes and ways of thinking that are still current in some respects. Apart from this literary classic, I would also like to recommend to Italian readers an anthology edited by Nicole Janigro and published in 2003 by Feltrinelli titled “Casablanca Serba” (although I’m afraid it’s out of print), which offers a multifaceted overview of contemporary fiction. The culture of Serbia is suspended between Vienna and Athens and in this complexity lies its charm, so we should avoid simplifications if we want to appreciate the country at its best.
Last but not least, the Italians in Serbia
“The Italian community in Serbia has grown a lot in these years and has been well integrated into the Serbian economic and social fabric. This is a fact that greatly facilitates the relationship with our compatriots, who know well that the doors of the Embassy and the Consulate are always open for any form of assistance. My hope is that our community will know how to grow and compete, even within it, while always exercising team spirit. We must grow together, aware that our strength is to be part of a strong and cohesive system that the Embassy is always trying to boost and enhance in all its facets”.
Interviewer: Biagio Carrano
This post is also available in: Italiano