Inspired by Dante Alighieri’s verses, in the year of the 700th anniversary of his death, H.E. Ambassador Lo Cascio provides us with insight into his hopes for the future after more than a year of the COVID pandemic
Italy and Serbia have proved to be reliable partners even during tough times. Now the time to restart has come: tha’s why Italy is “back on track”, together with Serbia – H.E. Carlo Lo Cascio.
Your Excellency, how would you summarise the past year in Serbia and the scope of diplomacy under the conditions of the pandemic?
During both last and this year, the pandemic made us realise the very essence of our job. We lived and suffered together with the people of Serbia, we experienced tough times together, almost became one thing together. Then we helped and assisted each other and found common solutions. Cooperation never stopped. Trade exchanges never disappeared. More than survivors, we are friends whose links were even fortified by this unprecedented challenge.
In the meantime, Serbia has succeeded in organising one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns, as a key tool to exit this crisis. The effectiveness of Serbia’s organisation is an important step in returning to our common work of high-level contacts in greater security for the benefit of bilateral relations and regional and multilateral cooperation.
The latest data arriving from Italy confirm that we are heading in the right direction. After so much suffering, there is now a desire to start all over again. We know that it will not be easy, but we must all contribute to the economic recovery and the re-launch of the image of Italy, which has always been synonymous with art, beauty and culture, as well as entrepreneurial dynamism.
Given the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, I feel comfortable enough to say that we went together “from the dark wood ” and are hopefully “heading to Paradise”, as he depicts in his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy.
Italy is one of Serbia’s most important economic partners. Was there any interest in strengthening and expanding that economic cooperation during this year of the pandemic?
– Serbia is increasingly becoming an important market for Italian goods. According to International forecasts, Serbia’s economy will continue to grow in the coming years, and therefore it is in our interest to support Italian companies that are looking to Serbia to internationalise their activities, both in terms of exports and foreign direct investments (another success story of the last few years).
Over 1,600 companies with Italian capital currently operate on the Serbian market, 588 of which are subsidiaries, employing about 40,000 people and generating a total turnover of 5.4% of Serbia’s GDP.
According to the Serbian national statistics institute, in the first quarter of 2021 bilateral trade has in fact returned to growth, recording an increase of 2.6% compared to the first quarter of 2020, reaching around 927 million euros. Italian exports to Serbia increased by 3.1% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period of last year.
Italy thus confirms itself as Serbia’s second largest trade partner, while also improving its trade surplus, which grew by 8.8%. These are encouraging signs, driven by the excellent performance of the Serbian economy (which the IMF estimates will return to growth by 5% in 2021), that confirm the attractiveness of the Serbian market for Italian operators and the great opportunities for our companies.
Our economic partnership with Serbia has grown over the years to our mutual satisfaction, and it could now be strengthened while increasingly intense competition exists. As we saw in recent times, other interesting areas for deepening commercial cooperation include infrastructure, the circular and digital economy, innovation and technology, the defence industry etc.
Over the past few months, we’ve heard a renewal of questions regarding the possible fate of Fiat Chrysler in Serbia emanating from within the company. How do you see the future of this major automobile manufacturer’s Kragujevac factory?
– The future of the Kragujevac factory has never been brought into question. I see FCA continuing to operate in Serbia, with possible new inputs.
The fight against corruption and organised crime is the key priority of IPA assistance in the area of rule of law. Around 16 million euros has been mobilised to support Serbia in preventing and fighting corruption and organised crime since 2013
As an Ambassador, you also maintain regular communication with interlocutors in the Serbian National Assembly. What does parliamentary life there look like to you today, when it has almost no representatives of the opposition?
– We believe that debate in the Parliament should still be the most suitable way to resolve confrontations in a democratic country; for this, we did not consider the electoral boycott as a sustainable method of political engagement.
The outcome of the elections in June 2020 gave the country a cohesive Parliament with a vast majority supporting the action of the new government. This circumstance should be considered as a great opportunity to carry out important reforms in the interest of Serbia, allowing progress on EU accession negotiations.
The role of the Parliament is fundamental for translating the efforts of the Government, along the path of reforms, into tangible facts.
Are you taking an interest in the resumed inter-party dialogue in Serbia, which is receiving assistance from representatives of the European Parliament; and, if so, what do you expect from those talks?
– We hope that the Inter-Party Dialogue facilitated by the European Parliament will allow the reaching of an agreement on electoral conditions in view of the next elections, so that a larger number of parties will take part in the competition and Serbian citizens will have a wider range of options when casting their votes in the polls.
I am confident that political forces will use the inter-party dialogues to forge as broad a consensus as possible on electoral conditions, whilst also engaging in a transparent, decisive and inclusive discussions on the implementation of the ODIHR’s recommendations.
The aforementioned European Parliament, with the support of a large majority that included Italian MEPs, adopted a report on Serbia calling for more decisive government action to shed light on scandals linked to corruption and crime. Do you think that such a view of Serbia contributes to the slowdown in the pace of European integration?
– Serbia needs to strengthen the track record of investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in the fight against high level corruption and organised crime. This is important to demonstrate the effectiveness of the rule of law reforms in practical application.
By the way, the fight against corruption and organised crime is the key priority of IPA assistance in the area of rule of law. Around 16 million euros has been mobilised to support Serbia in preventing and fighting corruption and organised crime since 2013. In this field, Italy, also under the guise of multilateral programmes, has a long story of cooperation with Serbia: the Sixth meeting of the National Prosecutors against corruption and organised crime recently took place under the patronage of OSCE, but the very core cooperation was initially Italian-Serbian.
Having said that, on the one hand, the path towards EU accession is a merit-based process that’s dependent on concrete results achieved by each candidate country. On the other hand, Member States have to act accordingly by rewarding progress on reforms and advancing negotiations. We are neither looking for shortcuts in the enlargement process nor trying to minimise the importance of reforms. On the contrary, we want to support them through the strong incentive of the European perspective, which has to become more credible and predictable. This is up to both candidate countries and member states.
Dialogue with civil society is crucial to ensure that the reforms approved by Parliament are shared and not divisive within the country. NGOs and journalists play an important role in any modern society, now more than ever
You’ve expressed support for the media and representatives of the non-governmental sector, especially the Crta organisation, which has been subjected to attacks from pro-government tabloids. How do you see the situation when it comes to the state of democracy and freedom of the press in Serbia?
– Dialogue with civil society is crucial to ensure that the reforms approved by Parliament are shared and not divisive within the country. NGOs and journalists play an important role in any modern society, now more than ever. We definitely welcome the approval of a new Media strategy. Serbia has a good framework to make quick and decisive progress. Certainly more steps forward need to be taken to ensure a pluralistic media scene and, in the public interest, we hope that a more constructive environment could soon be achieved.
More in general, strengthening of the rule of law, fundamental rights and justice is key for the accession negotiations to take off. It will also be crucial to address these issues by pursuing a genuine dialogue with civil society and journalists’ associations.
Despite the past year having been marked by the pandemic, the Italian Embassy and the Italian Cultural Institute continued to promote cooperation in the domain of culture. Are you satisfied with the public interest in the Hypermodern Dante exhibition, which was arranged to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death?
– We are very satisfied, because despite the pandemic, which inevitably imposed some restrictions in terms of access, the Belgrade public came to visit the exhibition, giving us a signal of their appreciation and real interest, but above all of hope and optimism. Seven centuries after his death, Dante continues to be modern, contemporary and even rather “hypermodern”, and he continues to inspire artists of different sensibilities and techniques, as can be seen at the exhibition.
The work of the Italian “Supreme Poet” shows us the great themes of existence, life, death, pain, love: in short, all the main features and contradictions of the human soul.
Maybe some of the visitors felt supported in their pain, after this tough year of the pandemic, given Dante’s view towards the Paradise that is an “eternal Love that moves the whole sky and all the stars”. The artists of the exhibition were able to translate all of that into powerful and impressive images that I also would like to share with you, looking to the future.
Italian exports to Serbia increased by 3.1% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period of last year
The future of the Kragujevac factory has never been brought into question. I see FCA continuing to operate in Serbia, with possible new inputs
We believe that debate in the Parliament should still be the most suitable way to resolve confrontations in a democratic country