Having arrived in Belgrade as the new Italian ambassador to Serbia, His Excellency Carlo Lo Cascio has returned to a city he knows well! As far back as 2005, he was posted as a counsellor at the Italian Embassy to Serbia, so today he is able to see the degree of changes that have occurred over the past 15 years in the country and across the Balkans, with which he is also familiar.
Ambassador Lo Cascio believes in the European perspective of the region, refusing claims that Eurosceptics in the new Italian government are also bringing into question the survival of the European Union itself. He’s convinced of the strengthening of bilateral relations between Italy and Serbia, as well as the continued existence of carmaker Fiat in Kragujevac!
In this interview for CorD Magazine, he explains why recently, while hosting a reception marking Italian national day, he said to his colleagues in Serbia: “help us to help you”.
Your Excellency, you’ve returned to the Embassy of Italy in Belgrade for a second time. How does Serbia look today compared to 2005, when you also served at the embassy?
I am indeed honoured to be back in Serbia, this time as the Italian Ambassador. Italy and Serbia share a genuine friendship and excellent bilateral relations. At that time we thought that investing here, politically and economically, was a good way to offer a vision, based on the European perspective, for the future of Serbia, which in those years was recovering from a very difficult period.
We decided to make an“investment” in our relationship, which proved to be successful and rewarding. Serbia nowadays is a key country in the region. Major changes include robust economic growth, a number of institutional and public sector reforms, improved relations with neighbouring countries and, most of all, the ongoing European integration path.
Although several challenges are still ahead, Serbia has definitely gained a better level of consciousness regarding its own future. We fully support Serbia’s European choice and are very pleased to see that it is well underway.
You are well-acquainted with the Balkans. Do you believe the region is moving closer to EU membership, or is it possible that there will be new tensions and conflicts – as warned of by Jean-Claude Juncker, but also local leaders?
Over the last few years, the situation in the Balkans has improved significantly and all the countries of the region have clearly stated that EU membership is their common strategic goal.
The reform path is very important for the EU accession process, aimed at increasing stability and democracy in the Balkans. At its most basic core, it promotes peace and prosperity in the region, which are our main priorities. Unfortunately, occasional resurgences of nationalist rhetoric and some unresolved controversies may cause unnecessary volatility, reflected both in political internal dynamics and bilateral relations among some countries in the region.
That’s why I believe that the more tangible the European perspective becomes for them, the better it will be for Western Balkans’ stability and prosperity.
Belief in European integration has also been brought into question in Serbia due to the situation within the European Union, as well as the fact that populism and Euroscepticism are strengthening in member states. Could Italy be included among those countries, given that the new government includes politicians with strong anti-EU rhetoric?
First of all, Italy has a strong interest in providing help and support to Serbia on its path towards the EU. Secondly, to answer more specifically your question, Italy wants the EU to become closer to its citizens, to protect them, and to feel ready to face emergencies, such as that of migration. Having said that, the change in popular perception regarding this issue has prompted many politicians across the whole of Europe to tighten their stance on migrants, closing borders and leaving the burden to their neighbours.
This, in turn, explains why citizens in front-line European countries – like Italy – start objecting to a political community that does not seem to show any solidarity and leaves the countries of first entry alone to manage arrivals. It is pivotal now to reaffirm, also in this crucial area, those founding values of the EU like solidarity and responsibility, which we celebrated last year at the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
I believe that the more tangible the European perspective becomes for Western Balkans, the better it will be for their stability and prosperity
One area of dispute within the EU is the stance regarding migrants. In your opinion, why is this issue again in the focus of the EU, especially during a year in which the number of migrants coming from the Middle East is nowhere near the figures from the largest waves of migration?
There are both political and factual elements that contribute to explaining why this issue is still high on the agenda of European leaders. Southern EU Member States continue to experience high levels of pressure from Africa. And Europe as a whole is still facing the consequences of the wave of migrants of 2015-2016, with the several Member States still struggling to build adequate reception facilities and implement integration policies. As I said, these difficulties in facing this process have a considerable impact on Europe’s public opinion, particularly in its front-line countries. Migration is now perceived more as a problem than an opportunity and the capacity of states to govern it through border controls is now under the spotlight of public opinion.
Therefore, we must put the migration issue into perspective: although the Syrian war and, even before that, turmoil in Northern Africa countries are the main causes of the crisis currently impacting the EU, migration is still a worldwide and a long-term phenomenon rooted in demographic, economic and environmental factors that are here to stay, and that European governments must deal with.
Deputy Italian Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini gave his support to Austrian Chancellor Kurz’s idea of setting up migrant campsites beyond the EU’s borders. Do we know where such camps would be located and does Serbia have any reason for anxiety regarding such plans?
As far as we know, no proposal has officially been made by Austria, during its rotating Presidency of the EU. Should these plans ever be formally presented by Vienna to the other EU governments, I am sure Rome would assess them seriously. In any case, there is still no official proposal under consideration.
Italy wants the EU to become closer to its citizens, to protect them, and to feel ready to face emergencies such as that of migration
Returning to Serbia, can you explain the message you relayed from the Belgrade reception commemorating Italian National Day? You said, “help us to help you”; what were you referring to specifically?
As I said, we fully support Serbia on its path towards the European Union. We know that the accession negotiation process is a demanding and challenging one, but we don’t see any reason for Serbia to be discouraged. On the contrary, we believe that some important steps have already been taken, especially in the economic sector, and we are aware – as the Serbian authorities – that there is still a lot to do on the road to Brussels.
For this reason, we are convinced that Serbia’s European track actually belongs to the Serbian citizens and is aimed at increasing the quality of their lives, as Prime Minister Brnabić has said.
Serbia needs to adopt and implement good reforms in order to guarantee a better future for the entire country. We are here to support Serbia in its commitment to reforms, especially in the area of the rule of law, and to cooperate with Belgrade for a more stable and interconnected region. It’s a joint effort and, as always, it takes two to tango, but we are confident in the progress being made.
You’ve said that in 2005, when you were First Counsellor at the embassy in Belgrade, Serbia was already part of Europe. What do you consider as being the key challenges of the EU integration process?
Serbia’s efforts are shaping the country’s position regarding the EU. Others may have different opinions, but I tend to see the glass as being half-full. Serbian authorities are well aware that Chapters 23 and 24 represent the bulk of negotiations. Indeed, a good performance in these areas, especially in the area of the rule of law, in line with the requested standards, is key to advancing the European integration process. On the other hand, Serbia’s role in the region, as a provider of stability, could also positively influence Belgrade’s European path.
Can the lack of a swift solution to relations between Belgrade and Pristina jeopardise continuing EU membership negotiations?
A comprehensive agreement between Belgrade and Pristina on the normalisation of their relations is certainly one of the goals to be achieved along the path to EU membership. Ideally, a compromise solution would be beneficial to both sides and the region as a whole.
We are therefore encouraging Belgrade and Pristina to intensify their efforts in order to achieve an agreement, which should ensure the well-being of their citizens and grant a peaceful future in the Western Balkans. From this point of view, the purpose of the Dialogue goes even beyond the EU accession process.
There is so much at stake here, and not only for those – like Italy – that are geographically close to Serbia and Kosovo. Peace and stability in the region are key priorities for all of us. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, we believe there is a chance to find a viable and lasting solution.
To what extent are bilateral relations between Italy and Serbia conditioned by the pace of Serbia’s EU accession?
Diplomatic ties are sometimes anticipated by friendship among populations. This is certainly true in the case of Italy and Serbia’s bilateral relationship.
My mission is to further strengthen our fruitful cooperation, especially in light of Serbia’s EU integration. The more Serbia progresses in the EU accession process, the better it will be for Serbian citizens. Better living conditions, better standards, a better climate for business – to be achieved through reforms – would benefit not only the Serbs but also those who invest in the country, as Italy does.
Our strength is to be able to share our pattern of economic development with Serbian management and workforce
How do you think we could further develop the strategic partnership between Italy and Serbia, established in 2009, following the bilateral arrangement?
In the ten years of our strategic partnership, which will be celebrated next year, we have had some significant achievements. First of all, we are Serbia’s largest foreign investor and second largest trade partner. We are also Serbia’s first customers. The Italian presence in Serbia is a reference in several sectors: textiles, agriculture and the metal, automotive, banking and insurance industries. Our strength is in being able to share our pattern of economic development with Serbian management and workforce. We are not here to impose ourselves, but to find ideas and solutions for a common future of growth and well-being.
While we enjoy a well-balanced relationship, there is still a lot we can do together, for example in infrastructure or the defence industry. Italian companies can offer quality and expertise in both of these areas, so we should think about some joint efforts to intensify cooperation in these sectors. As for the most promising investments in the medium term, I would consider that as being agribusiness – in particular, organic farming – as well as renewable energy production and energy efficiency related industry. Moreover, I would like to emphasise the growing relevance of scientific research and information technology, which in my view could soon become the “new frontier” of our strategic partnership.
September sees the culmination of the ten-year contract between Italian company Fiat and the Government of Serbia on business and technical cooperation at the former Zastava factory in Kragujevac. Is this Italian investor remaining in Serbia?
All the Italian investors in Serbia I have met – from the biggest companies to the smallest ones – are satisfied with what they are doing here. They are willing to stay and possibly increase their presence and business. So far, I have not detected any single exception to such an encouraging trend.
Italy and Serbia share a genuine friendship and excellent bilateral relations
It is pivotal now to reaffirm those founding values of the EU like solidarity and responsibility
All the Italian investors in Serbia I have met are satisfied with what they are doing here