Italy supports Serbia in fulfilling its EU accession requirements, acknowledging Belgrade’s efforts to implement crucial reforms and looking forward to the new National Assembly and the new Government proceeding steadily along the same track
First the pandemic and then the sudden geopolitical challenges brought about by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine have been hitting logistics, supply chains and the energy and commodities markets. It is therefore no surprise that this topic dominated the first part of our interview with Italian Ambassador to Serbia H.E. Carlo Lo Cascio.
“Following the general trend towards nearshoring, several Italian companies (both multinationals and SMEs) are considering relocating their operations from the Far East to Serbia,” says Ambassador Lo Cascio at the start of this interview. “Belgrade has thus attracted direct investment flows, which have been increasing constantly, even during the pandemic, and reached a record amount of 3.9 billion euros in 2021. Allow me to recall just the recent deal signed between the Government of Serbia and the Stellantis group. This latter will start manufacturing a new FIAT electric car at its historical plant in Kragujevac from 2024 onwards. Besides, if we look at bilateral trade, flows have been rising to pre-Covid levels and reached a new record level in 2021, with total trade worth 4.1 billion euros (+24%). And our bilateral trade has retained its positive pace in this first quarter of 2022 (up 19% compared to the first quarter 2021).”
Our interlocutor also notes that the nearshoring opportunities offered by the Serbian market were also discussed during the successful recent visit of Confindustria and Confindustria Est Europa to Belgrade on 9th and 10th May.
When we think of Italy, we usually think about luxury brands and exquisite food. However, you are also among the most advanced countries when it comes to the application of cutting-edge technologies in industry. To what extent is Italy today a knowledge-based economy?
Italy is indeed more than food & fashion and our new national branding campaign, “Italy is simply extraordinary – be IT”, explains that very well. Our Country is leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the same way Serbia is doing in the Balkan region, which is by investing in education and infrastructure. With approximately 5,400 high-tech manufacturing companies, according to Eurostat, Italy is one of Europe’s top four countries in this field. When all sectors are taken into consideration, Italy remains one of the foremost countries in Europe, with more than 105,000 high-tech companies.
Italy also outdoes the European average in terms of production and the use of industrial robots, and in the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies like the Cloud or the Internet of Things. The private sector is also doing its part because, according to the European Commission, the average annual research and development expenditure of Italy’s top companies for R&D spending is at a level of 185.4 million euros, which exceeds the EU average. Just to mention one of the results achieved by our country: Italy ranks 7th in industrial robotics worldwide and 2nd in Europe, just behind Germany. Innovation is also one of the key themes of Rome’s candidacy to host World Expo 2030.
Italy and Serbia have had very dynamic cooperation in “science diplomacy” for a while, which serves to connect industrial application and value-added manufacturing to science and research. What are the most important outcomes of this cooperation?
This is very true, and the most significant outcome of this dynamic cooperation – on top of the numerous success stories – is its solidity and the richness and breadth of initiatives, from humanities to particle physics, as well as the special value of this cooperation for both countries. Over recent years, Serbia has developed strong competencies in many areas: applied IT, agri-food technology and bioengineering, to mention just a few. This has resulted in increased reciprocity in R&I collaboration that also fosters interest in investing in Serbia among innovative Italian firms.
There are, and will be, old and new tough challenges to overcome. We still need to enhance efforts for a common recommitment to the values of the European Convention on Human Rights
We are monitoring this process closely and are committed to creating conditions for even stronger cooperation in R&I. Tangible opportunities for more structured collaboration will be offered by the ambitious research policies and programmes that Italy and Serbia are developing to mobilise their research systems to address future scientific, technological and societal challenges.
The Serbian national innovation system is young and suffers a lot from the lack of cooperation between universities and particularly SMEs and start-ups. What could we learn from the Italian experience in this respect?
Public-private research collaboration between Italian universities and domestic industry is indeed increasing. We have also suffered due to the separation of these two worlds, but university–industry interactions have grown rapidly in Italy over past years.
The presence of different sources of innovation increases the likelihood of collaboration; proximity is more important for SMEs, while larger enterprises collaborate with universities better and are able to sell the results of their research. This is truly the reason behind the success story of industrial districts in Italy, where the craftsmanship inherited from the past is combined with innovations coming from universities and research laboratories, leading to continuous improvements and generating a constant flow of new patents, machines, materials and designs. This is a positive example that we would like to disseminate and replicate in Serbia, and also the reason we’re investing a lot to strengthen the “dual system” between the Serbian education system and Italian companies.
The Italian Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which concluded in May 2022, aimed to remind us of basic values related to democracy and human rights, through the lenses of social rights, culture and the ethical use of artificial intelligence. What were the main messages conveyed by the Presidency?
We identified these as our priority areas from the very first moment of our Chairmanship. The international environment was very different, but Italy still considered those selected to be the primary concerns of the modern world. Tragic events have occurred recently, with the brutal and unjustified Russian aggression against Ukraine and the consequent worst humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since World War II. This sadly showed how the identified priority areas were not only a set of standards permanently reached by the Member States of the Council of Europe, but principles that we must continue to reaffirm and apply. I believe that the key message of the Italian Chairmanship is acknowledging that basic values, such as democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, are not secured forever.
As you’ve stated recently, there is a need for the serious and credible revitalisation of the EU enlargement process. What does that mean in practical terms?
When the European Council met in Thessaloniki in 2003 and clearly set out the EU perspective of the Western Balkans, membership seemed like a goal that would be achievable in the near future. Today, almost 20 years on, many things have changed and, unfortunately, that same goal looks to be even further away. We are running the risk of a disaffection with EU prospects among the citizens of this region. Regardless of the lengthy procedures entailed by the Enlargement process, EU member states should still demonstrate how much they support and advocate for Serbia’s accession path.
Regardless of the lengthy procedures entailed by the Enlargement process, EU member states should still demonstrate how much they support and advocate for Serbia’s accession path
For its part, Italy supports Serbia in fulfilling the accession requirements, acknowledging Belgrade’s efforts to implement crucial reforms and looking forward to the new National Assembly and the new Government proceeding steadily along the same track. The current conflict in Ukraine requires further efforts on the Serbian side, particularly in terms of alignment with the Common Foreign & Security Policy, in order to continue advancing along the path to the EU.
During the times of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were often restricted to only virtual communication. Now, with the pandemic abating, people are increasingly interested in reuniting and delving into cultural issues. How is this reflected in the work of the Italian Cultural Institute of Belgrade?
The outbreak of the pandemic required a swift shift to new methodologies in communication strategies, as well as in access to cultural events. This process of reshaping all programmes and initiatives affected both content providers and users alike. There is no doubt that the return of in-person events provided an opportunity to bring to Belgrade some unique new cultural initiatives, such as the recent concerts of brilliant Italian singer Alice and Oscarwinning composer Nicola Piovani. The public was craving participation in live events and that was proven by the huge attendance that we had.
Nevertheless, we did learn that broadcasting events online could provide access to a broader audience that would like to experience Italian culture, albeit at a distance. We will continue to share a high number of initiatives online and reach out to those who might not be able to physically attend events organised by the Italian Cultural Institute of Belgrade.
We are at the beginning of a tourism season that could more resemble those that preceded Covid-19. To what extent have business visits and tourist trips between our two countries rebounded?
Italy has already experienced the strong revival of tourism over recent months, with more and more people spending their holidays in our country than was the case before the pandemic. We had nearly 10 million visitors in March 2022 alone, equating to 70% of the pre-Covid levels, and this is just at the beginning of the new summer season. Not only are Italy’s major cities benefiting from this trend (such as Venice, with the ongoing Biennale international event, or Turin, which hosted the recent Eurovision Song Contest), but niche tourist destinations are also being impacted positively (smaller islands, environmentally sustainable and rural tourism, Southern Italy).
Italy remains one of the world’s most popular destinations and tourism represents nearly 10% of the country’s economy. We are sure that the decision of Air Serbia, which is a very reliable partner for us, to increase connections with our country and the recent lifting of travel restrictions in Italy will spur more tourist flows between our two countries.
The current conflict in Ukraine requires further efforts on the Serbian side, particularly in terms of alignment with the CFSP, in order to continue advancing along the path to the EU
Italy is leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the same manner that Serbia is doing in the Balkan region, which is by investing in education and infrastructure
We have been investing in the IT sector in Serbia and are keen to deepen our bilateral cooperation in this field