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H.E. Carlo Lo Cascio, Ambassador Of Italy To Serbia

Friends During Both Good And Bad Times

The Italian medical team said that Serbia was definitely fully prepared to face the COVID-19 crisis. The expertise of local healthcare staff was assessed as being at a high level – Carlo Lo Cascio

The COVID-19 Pandemic and many months of the struggle against the virus have provided new confirmation of the “special relationship” between Italy and Serbia. Despite being confronted by a dangerous virus, our two countries – which last year celebrated 140 years of diplomatic relations – once again found a way to help and support one another, says ambassador Carlo Lo Cascio.

The economic crisis that has come as a result of COVID-19 hit the economies of both countries, but the Italian ambassador is convinced that it won’t have a stronger negative influence on our economic exchange. In this interview for CorD Magazine, ambassador Lo Cascio also says that Italian car manufacturer FCA is staying in Serbia, where it is “very likely developing new project ideas for the immediate future”.

Your Excellency, a team of Italian doctors came to Serbia to help fight against COVID-19. Could you tell us more about this medical mission?

– The Italian medical team came to Serbia for two weeks during last August, with much enthusiasm and willingness to support the Serbian people, as well as their Serbian colleagues, sharing the expertise matured during the most difficult months of the pandemic in Italy, last spring.

The team consisted of five doctors (a surgeon, an infectologist and two anesthetists) and a nurse, who hail from four different Italian regions: Piemonte, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lazio and Puglia. They visited the Belgrade Clinical Centre, Zemun Hospital, the clinical centres of Niš, Kragujevac and Novi Sad, as well as KBC Bežanijska Kosa.

As they stated during an interview released after the first week of their activity, Serbia was definitely fully prepared to face the crisis, and they assessed the level of expertise of local sanitary as being at a high level. On the Serbian side, in particular, the visit of the Italian medical team was appreciated for their useful advice regarding techniques adopted in Italy for treating some COVID-19 cases in hospitals.

The engagement of Italian doctors in Serbia further demonstrates the solidarity between our two countries. Italy’s struggle against the COVID-19 virus was followed with great sympathy in Serbia. Were you surprised by the humanitarian aid that was sent to Italy from Belgrade?

– The mission of the Italian medical team was organised in summer, right when Serbia, unfortunately, had a high number of contagions again, especially in Belgrade and other main urban centres. It was important from our side to provide a sign of solidarity and friendship to Serbia, after Belgrade sent seven aircraft to Italy last April, carrying tonnes of medical donations to help us confront the worst moments of the coronavirus crisis in Italy.

Although I know the generosity of the Serbian people well, I have to say that I was truly moved by all the expressions of affection towards Italy coming from both ordinary Serbian citizens and the authorities. The generous donations to the Italian people were an extraordinary gesture that was very much appreciated. In my view, the great solidarity movement coming from the Serbian population once again confirmed that the friendship and feelings between Italy and Serbia are long-standing and sincere. The history of our relationship is really a meeting of close neighbours who help each other, in both good times and bad ones.

You know that last year we celebrated 140 years of diplomatic relations between Italy and Serbia, which we used to call a “special relationship”. In March that same year, when Belgrade received the visit of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, we also did a dedicated special edition with CorD Magazine entitled “Always together”. In this situation of urgent humanitarian need, we can say “always together” once again, and even louder!

After spring 2020 and the first wave of COVID- 19 took thousands of lives in Italy, do you fear that we could see a new wave of the pandemic?

– Many doctors and experts foresee a difficult autumn/winter in Europe, if not around the whole world. I personally cannot make forecasts, though I obviously hope that an increase in contagions in Italy, Serbia or other places will not happen again, and that the current rise in numbers in some countries will stop soon.

Having said that, I think that countries in the meantime gained much more experience for fighting the virus and they should now be better prepared to face new infection “waves” than in the past, also considering that in many parts of the world processes are well underway to establish international rescue and support mechanisms, like in the case of the EU.

It was important from our side to provide a sign of solidarity and friendship to Serbia, after Belgrade sent seven aircraft to Italy last April, carrying tonnes of medical donations to help us confront the worst moments of the coronavirus crisis in Italy

What do you think is the greater danger now: the Coronavirus Pandemic or the socio-economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis?

– Both are obviously severe aspects of this crisis. It is fundamental to preserve the health of the population and therefore continue to put in place appropriate measures, if and when needed.

At the same time, economic systems must be kept active and economic relations need to continue and flourish again. International cooperation or supranational aid agreements were helpful in this context, as happened with the European “Recovery Fund”.

EU leaders have agreed to a comprehensive package of €1,824.3 billion, which includes €750 billion to address challenges posed by COVID-19. Do you believe that the package will save the EU economy from an economic crisis that, according to some analysts, could be more serious than the one that hit in 2009?

– I would like to recall the words of our Prime Minister Conte when he presented the approved package to the Parliament. He explained that, faced with a shock of such proportions, during those dramatic months, the European Union was able to respond with courage and vision, right up to the decision to approve, for the first time, an ambitious recovery programme, to be financed through the issuance of genuine European government bonds.

In this way, we achieved a radical change of perspective, going beyond the logic of simple aid. We aim, instead, to ensure a recovery that is fully oriented towards economic growth and sustainable development, in particular though typical tools of the digitalisation era and ecological transition.

Italy is Serbia’s top economic partner. Could the economic recession that’s expected as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic impact on the level of economic exchange?

– Although the crisis had an impact on the economic partnership between Italy and Serbia, this must be seen in light of the more general crisis that affected economies worldwide. Considering the situation as a whole, I would say that trade exchanges between our two countries are still safe and sound. Of course, we would like to see everything soon go back to “business as usual”, in order to again reach the four-billion-euro peak of 2018 in trade exchange as soon as possible.

Innovation instruments envisaged in the European Recovery Fund should also help in this direction, as well as a strategy of public support for companies that already operate or intend to enter international markets through the extraordinary resources provided by the government to give a new impetus to the production system.

Do you know what fate awaits the Fiat factory in Kragujevac?

– The FCA [Fiat Chrysler Automobiles] Group is a very solid economic player. FCA is certainly going to continue to invest and be present in Serbia, as it is also very likely developing new project ideas for the immediate future.

Italy supports Serbia’s European integration, though that process appears to be slowing down. How do you see the fact that Serbia has not opened a single chapter in the last six months, for the first time since it began EU membership negotiations?

– Italy is without a doubt the strongest supporter of Serbia’s accession to the European Union. Italy and Serbia also last year celebrated 10 years since the signing of the strategic partnership agreement, which officially marked our commitment to intensify renewed cooperation under the basis of the common intention to see Serbia moving even faster towards European integration. Therefore, this certainly remains one of the core aspects of our relationship, as well as our bilateral support to Serbia.

As a demonstration, in Belgrade last December we welcomed a visit of our European Integration Minister Vincenzo Amendola, and this year began with the visit of our Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio, who reaffirmed the fundamental pillars of our partnership, including our common belonging to the European project.

Serbia also certainly has the clear goal of completing its European integration path, as of a long time ago, and it has been carrying out the accession process officially from 2014, according to an agreed schedule that requires the fulfilment of reforms and changes in 35 “sectors” (the so-called ‘Chapters’ listed by the Framework Agreement for Accession Negotiations). In the latest periodical evaluation of the state, there was no agreement among EU member states on the opening of new Chapters, as the majority thought that there was not enough progress on crucial chapters 23 and 24, on the rule of law and fundamental rights.

That doesn’t mean that EU member states don’t maintain an interest in Serbia becoming part of the EU. Rather, it is a sign that democratic processes, the protection of human rights and cross-party dialogue should all be more central and visible aspects, in order to bring the country ever closer to EU standards.

There were voices from EU institutions raising concern over the state of democracy in Serbia. How would you asses the current situation?

– Given that Serbia is in the European integration process, a spill-over effect is expected to take place in several sectors of reform, generating a positive transformative trend, specifically in critical areas.

Specific improvements should be achieved especially on the rule of law. Media freedom and freedom of expression, as well as reform in the administration and the judicial system, together with the fight against corruption, are key areas that require further developments.

I therefore expect the new Serbian Government to maintain the pace of its European journey and continue the reform process, considering that – with accession to the EU – Belgrade is looking for something beyond: better living standards and more prosperity for the whole country and its population.

Last year we celebrated 140 years of diplomatic relations between Italy and Serbia, which we used to call a “special relationship”. In March that same year, when Belgrade received the visit of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, we also did a dedicated special edition with CorD Magazine entitled “Always together”. In this situation of urgent humanitarian need, we can say “always together” once again, and even louder!

During the state of emergency this spring, you were very active on social networks, reminding your followers of the EU’s support for Serbia during the struggle against the coronavirus outbreak. Do you have the impression that there is a feeling in Serbia, but also in Italy, that the EU was late in reacting to the pandemic, while some other countries, such as China, quickly organised the sending of aid? 

– At the beginning of the outbreak of this coronavirus in Italy, and therefore in Europe, not many people immediately realised what was happening everywhere, and some observers commented that the EU did not want to help Italy. The European Council later responded fully to its task, as I said before, making its decision more forward looking than ever.

The EU also contributed a lot to assist Serbia during the most difficult months, with effective assistance, immediate humanitarian aid and generous donations.

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In general, I disagree with certain doubting approaches regarding the EU’s true intentions towards Serbia. They are deceiving and counterproductive. We shouldn’t forget that the implementation mechanism provides Serbia with 300 million euros in grants per year to support the reform process. In addition to that, we should not forget that the EU, as a whole, is Serbia’s top trade partner, top donor and top investor.

What do you expect in the continuation of the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, which has been renewed under the patronage of the EU?

– We fully support the dialogue under EU facilitation between Belgrade and Priština, and we were pleased with the resumption of talks in Brussels, in July, after a long pause. We are aware that discussions are never easy, and that’s why we encourage both sides to work with openmindedness and a forward-looking approach, in line with their European perspective. We firmly support EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčak’s facilitation in the search for a sustainable and durable agreement to ensure peace and stability in the region. Italy supports this process very much, also by leading the KFOR Mission, which benefits from the presence and support of many actors.

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