In an exclusive interview with Manlio di Stefano, Italy’s Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, and Undersecretary for Economic Development Michele Geraci, New Europe’s Federico Grandesso spoke with two important actors who are pushing the Italian government’s new trade strategy with Asia. Under the impulse of Geraci, Italy will put in place an innovative task force of potential investors and experts who will have the chance to shape Italy’s strategic trade policies with China.
New Europe (NE): Undersecretary Di Stefano, the Italian Government is going to prioritise having more robust trade relations with Asia, why do you support this important change of direction?
Manlio di Stefano (MS): Asia is strategic for us. We have to consolidate the market where we are already successful, but also to push a lot on the emerging markets where the US, UK, and France were more engaged than us. On this priority, we are investing a lot. We have created a task force where we set Asia as a priority, particularly China and Japan. For our strategy the economic agreements are important, but we also have to develop new solid political ties that will help us better compete in future public procurement opportunities and to support the consolidation of the Italian companies operating in Asia.
NE: How are you going to help Italian companies enter the Chinese market?
MS: With China, we are signing a series of memorandums of understanding defining common priorities such as investments in both countries. but also in other areas. On the One Belt, One Road initiative it is important that to stress both Italian and European interests. In this regard, we expect China to act in a way that considers the possibility of lowering the duties on certain EU products that arrive in China. It would be nice to see, for example, trains arriving in Europe that are loaded with Chinese products, then coming back to Asia full of European goods. We need a win-win trade cooperation.
NE: Which other Asian countries could be interesting in your strategy?
MS: Apart from China, I see big potential in Vietnam, the Philippines, and in Pakistan now that there is new political leadership, which means there could be new opportunities. In general, most Asian countries are undergoing important economic growth. but I also see, from the social point of view, a new dynamism that is able to create more openness and put aside some of the static old ideas. Italy is a champion when it comes to diplomacy and I see a window of opportunity in Asia with trips to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam in the first week of December.
NE: Which position will Italy play at the EU level when it comes to trade issues?
MS: When it comes to duties and anti-dumping actions, an EU multilateral approach is fundamental. We have to be honest when it comes to trade and economic relations all over the world, You can’t expect to find “friends”, as each country develops its bilateral economic policies independently. Italy has to act autonomously, then what we can get from larger multilateral actions is always welcome.
NE: Undersecretary Geraci, which role can Italy play regarding digitisation when it comes to tackling the Asian and foreign markets?
Michele Geraci (MG): Italian companies have to understand the importance of digitisation because without online new payments and internet-based shopping systems, it is not possible to have efficient internationalisation. The main objective is to increase Italian exports, but before doing that we have to build up our base. I see lots of companies trying to tackle potential foreign markets without understanding the necessary potential of the digital tool. Our objective is to show them this new world.
NE: Which cooperation initiatives are you supporting in China with your ministry?
MG: Recently in Shanghai, we had an important business forum together with the Bank of China where we focused on the One Belt, One Road initiative organising meetings between Italian and Chinese SMEs under the supervision of our government and of other big companies. Italy is placed at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, and I think we have to promote this particular detail. Italy can position itself as an indispensable One Belt, One Road terminal. There are some voices in Europe who say that Italy wants to separate from the European Union and create alternative alliances. This is not true. A strong Italy, with a Chinese presence that is coordinated with its EU allies, can be a benefit for everybody. We don’t want to go against a common EU strategy. Instead, we want to see the port of Rotterdam, for example, be very active. That’s why I think the ports of Venice and Trieste could play an important role in the One Belt, One Road strategy.
NE: Do you see Italian start-ups playing an important role in a revamped cooperation with Asia?
MG: Yes, but our Italian start-ups are too focused on technology and less on business. They lack financial resources and fail when it comes to financial management. We want to launch an initiative called “Erasmus for Start-Ups”. We need this because our young entrepreneurs must see successful start-ups all over the world and learn how to transform a good product into a good company. After that, there is the cultural part because ideas come to you when you travel and see things instead of just staying cooped up in your office and not exposed to something new.
NE: We see a growing trade war between the US and China. What is your feeling about how this is playing out?
MG: I can only tell you that I want to stay positive and I hope that all these trade issues end soon.