Italy rediscovers the Western Balkans – Tajani: “We want to be protagonists and not colonizers”

The Covid, the rise in commodity prices, the blockades of certain strategic global supply chains, and the Russian aggression against Ukraine – these are some of the consecutive shocks that have ushered us into a new geopolitical era of international relations, remodeling the projection axes of the economies of almost all Western European countries.

Italy, which presents itself as a stakeholder of regional significance in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, has been trying to organise its national resources for new activism in the quadrants of its immediate interest since the Meloni government took office. Since the so-called Arab Spring and the fall of Gaddafi, North Africa has been at the top of the list of priorities for Italian diplomacy. Undoubtedly, (and now also explicitly recognised at the highest levels), the official Rome has for years been lying down on the comfortable position of a placid promoter of the European integration of the Western Balkan countries, a sort of diplomatic treadmill that would automatically have generated certain results. However, this has not been the case. On the contrary, the Italian pro-European fatalism of recent years has allowed many countries, including non-European ones, to take away economic space, prestige, and the willingness of local leaders to listen to the demands of Italian stakeholders.

But self-flagellation is wrong because there is often more consideration for us among our Balkan interlocutors than we have for ourselves. There is a desire for Italy in the Balkans, and it is up to us to build ways to respond to these demands emerging from the area,’ remarked Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani in his opening speech at the conference ‘Italy and the Western Balkans, Growth and Integration. Objectives, tools and opportunities for the Italian system’, which brought together politicians, diplomats, entrepreneurs, representatives of business associations, and financial and social operators yesterday in Trieste to define a unified strategy for Italy’s presence in the six countries of the region (Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). A region, with a collective GDP of 120 billion euros, still weighs relatively little in economic terms (in Italy, it would be sixth in the ranking after Lombardy, Lazio, Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Piedmont), but whose importance is often not fully grasped due to its geographical position and growth potential.

The mutual expectations between the region and Italy are many: political stability, management of illegal immigration flows, development of economic presence, internationalisation and not delocalisation of businesses, creation of new value chains (in terms of nearshoring or, neologism, ‘friendshoring’), the demand for Italian culture and lifestyle – all these are the axes of collaboration mentioned by Tajani. “We want to re-launch Italian prominence in the area without colonialism. Indeed, all the stakeholders, Italian and Western Balkan, must feel that they are protagonists in a common growth effort,” remarked the deputy prime minister.

EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Oliver Varhely, recalled the European spending commitments, amounting to EUR 30 billion, or a quarter of the area’s GDP, and the need to strengthen all forms of integration and interconnection, i.e. not only in political terms but in infrastructural terms too, such as the transport of people and goods, energy resources, and digital resources. “Italy must strongly promote the Western Balkans in the EU,” Varhely hoped, “with new formulas, with a more dynamic, greener development, capable of contributing to the energy autonomy of the continent, in an integration that has not only a political perspective but a social one.

During the panel discussion that saw the presentation of the Western Balkan countries by their respective Italian ambassadors, the head of the Italian mission in Belgrade, Luca Gori, recalled some starting points that those who intend to operate in the country today must be clear with: “Serbia represents half of the region’s GDP. In 10 years it has gone from 40 to 60 billion euros, it has doubled the national minimum wage in six years, and it is strongly committed to a process of transformation of its industrial system by moving towards new technologies and high-added value services. In this framework, Serbia requires from Italy high-level collaborations, real innovations in industrial and organisational terms, new services and skills, and excellence, also in relation to the demand for Made in Italy. In order to take advantage of this new phase, there is a need to re-launch, rethink and re-qualify the Italian presence in the country. The Italy-Serbia Business Forum, which is going to be held on 21 March in Belgrade, will be the first step in this new framework of cooperation between the two countries and will focus on three areas: green/energy transition; agri-tech; and infrastructure. In May, Italy will also be a partner country of the Novi Sad Agriculture Fair, which is an opportunity to present Italian agricultural innovations such as precision agriculture, biofood, processing and packaging, and robotised agricultural machinery at the region’s most important event in the sector.”

As Council President Meloni remarked in her greetings, ‘there is a need to develop a new vision in the region. A vision that passes not only through a renewed political priority, but also through a more adequate understanding of the region, in all its significant diversities, precisely in order to operate in the most appropriate manner, going beyond the narrative of a generically complicated and unstable region, destined to perpetuate certain economic and social lags’.

In this sense, Minister Tajani should ask himself whether the hoped-for protagonism of Italian diplomacy is not contradicted by the main Italian newspapers, which instead remain mired in a merely problematising vision of the Western Balkans, almost as uncritical megaphones of certain political actors in the region. Just yesterday, while the Italian commitment to the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo was being discussed in Trieste, the Corriere della Sera, published with great relevance an interview by the ineffable Francesco Battistini with Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani, with very harsh attacks on Serbia: “Serbia? Imperialist like Moscow and cooperates with Wagner’, read the headline. Osmani continued by stating that ‘Serbia considers Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro as provisional states that it wants to destroy‘ and therefore ‘no agreement is possible with the current president Vucic”. These articles arrive on the desks of the ambassadors of the mentioned countries in Italy, and sometimes on those of their prime ministers and presidents, and give an interpretation that is quite far removed from that promoted by the official Rome.

Where, then, does the right to report end and where does propaganda and unverified Black PR that damages the government’s diplomatic efforts begin is a question we would gladly ask professional journalist Antonio Tajani.

By Biagio Carrano

This post is also available in: Italiano

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