ITALY is no greenhorn when it comes to holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union, as the homeland of Roberto Martini has done it 11 times. However, the Italian Ambassador to Slovakia, Martini, admits that this is a challenging time since, among other things, the EU’s global role is being reassessed. Another immense challenge is immigration, as Italy has received around 40,000 immigrants in the first five months of the year, with Martini suggesting that the issue needs wider international attention and coordination at the EU level.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Martini about the priorities of the Italian presidency, immigration, the EXPO that Milan will host after 106 years, energy security, investment opportunities as well as Slovaks’ passion for Italian culture.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Italy is taking over the EU presidency for the second half of 2014. What will be the main theme for the Italian presidency and what are the issues your homeland plans to address? What do you see as the main challenges of the presidency?
Roberto Martini (RM):
The Italian presidency features three priorities: pursuing a job-friendly Europe and economic growth, improving the European Union (EU) as an area of democracy, rights and freedoms as well as the re-assessment of the global role of the EU in the international realm. These are challenging targets as this is also a transitional period: we recently held elections to the European Parliament, while the creation of the new EU Commission is still under way. We are also witnessing ongoing challenges in the international arena: Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, just to mention the most pressing ones.

Of course, issues of growth and labour are very important. The new Italian government has already put together a plan called ‘decreto occupazione’, or employment decree, focusing on the labour market; but as far as the European level is concerned, different positions shall be discussed at a number of forums, such as the next EuroFin meeting.

It is a challenging time, but Italy, which has been contributing to the main developments of the EU for decades, has already done 11 EU presidencies. Italy is one of the founding fathers of the EU and the Treaty of Rome of 1957 is the cornerstone of European integration.

TSS: Are there any specific events your embassy is planning in Slovakia in association with the Italian EU presidency?
We opened our presidency with a concert of Roberto Cacciapaglia, a leading international artist of minimalism, who was accompanied by cellist Silvia Longauerová. We are planning an exhibition of photographs in Žilina featuring the Italian regions, which play an important role as they contribute their territorial experience and culture to the greater European culture. A number of activities will take place in many different cities of Slovakia, while we will wrap up the presidency with another concert on December 11, featuring another Italian composer, Francesco Giammusso.

TSS: The number of people attempting to enter the EU from North Africa through Italy has increased sharply according to EU data. Italy is one of the five EU countries taking on more than 70 percent of all refugees seeking asylum in the EU. What are the main challenges that increased immigration brings to Italy?
In the first six months of 2014, the number of immigrants was more than what we had for the whole of last year, 2013. A considerable number of the immigrants are concentrating on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and the coasts of Sicily. On one hand, Europe has always been a welcoming continent, but on the other hand, the problems are challenging. What are we doing to address this issue? Italy has launched the Mare Nostrum, an operation financed by the Italian government, to address the situation, while the project includes patrolling the coasts and large areas of the sea. We think that larger involvement of the countries in the Mediterranean and in the activities of the Mare Nostrum would be important, because immigration in Italy is not only an Italian problem, but, rather, a European question.

Immigrants, once they land in Italy, wish often to continue their journey to another European country, treating Italy as a transition country. Thus this is a European issue, which needs to be addressed jointly. We also would like to increase the importance of Frontex, an agency of EU immigration.

Importantly, one should remember that, very often, trafficking of human beings done by people in many of the immigrants’ countries of origin is involved, while several deaths have occurred. The core issue is that Italy calls for more coordination at the European level. We would like to see greater awareness of the dimension of this problem.

TSS: Milan, Italy, will host the EXPO fair after 106 years. The main theme will be ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. Why did Italy pick this theme? What are the challenges of hosting the EXPO?
Food has always played an important role in Italy and thus we thought that food should be the main theme of EXPO as well, but not only in terms of cultural aspects or gastronomy, but as a way to contribute to the discussion about important questions, like food security, global and sustainable access to nutrition, diet for health. We want to encourage the communities to take a comprehensive approach to the role food plays in the growth and the sustainability of society.
Nutrition is one of the United Nations’ millennium development goals. When we speak about food, it also involves water and reduction of food waste. Already, 147 countries have confirmed their participation and Slovakia is participating with a beautiful pavilion organised by the Slovak general commissioner for EXPO, Martin Polák.

TSS: What benefits will the exhibition bring to Italy?
Not only Italy will benefit, but most European countries will, too. For example, there is an ongoing discussion on food and diet, with some experts stressing that sugar intake should be drastically reduced. But perhaps the approach should be more complex: not only the question of reducing sugar intake and seeing sugar as a demon, but rather advocating a balanced diet with physical activities. This is clear to Italian authorities, and we are taking this to an international level.

TSS: Energy security is a widely discussed issue which has gained additional importance after recent tensions between Ukraine and Russia. What are Italy’s current biggest energy security challenges?
Energy is, of course, one of the most important issues nowadays. Italy imports Russian gas for up to 29 percent of its total consumption.
So, of course, we are following with attention the developments in Ukraine and we have been contributing actively to the discussions in Brussels about energy security. On the other hand, we have diversified and are diversifying energy sources in Italy also through participation in different pipeline projects worldwide.

Italy is one of the countries where solar energy has grown on a larger scale compared to other countries in Europe. The majority of our energy, though, comes from petrol and gas. We have a high percentage of hydro-power electricity, which still amounts to something like 70 percent of our renewable energy resources; and the sector of solar panels is growing a lot, because there are also incentives from the government which help common citizens and companies to invest in this. It is
also because Italian companies are widely producing solar panels.

We have companies investing in solar panels also here, in Slovakia, for example, in the area of Rimavská Sobota. Thanks to these policies, in the last 15 years, we tried to diversify our energy imports: Algeria, Libya, North Europe, Russia and Azerbaijan; but we also have big industrial plans to transform liquid gas into gas, including gas coming from Qatar.

TSS: Italy is changing how it calculates its GDP to include certain areas of grey economic activity, such as prostitution, illegal drug sales or smuggling and arms trafficking. The prediction is that this will add 1.3 percentage points to GDP this year. What are the reasons behind this change?
This is a debate which has been going on for some time. Of course, taking into account some activities which are currently outside the statistics, it would make our understanding of the real situation of the economy in Italy more precise, while improving the fiscal resources. For the time being, it’s mostly a debate, but at the same time an important one, as it helps to focus attention on problems which are present not only in Italy but also other countries.

TSS: Italy is one of the biggest foreign investors in Slovakia. Where do you see, in terms of economic sectors and geographical location, the most room or the biggest opportunities for further Italian investments?
I am happy to share the information that two weeks ago in Žilina, we participated in the inauguration of two highway sections at Lietavská Lúčka – Dubná Skala, to be built with the participation of one of the leading Italian groups worldwide: Salini Impregilo. What makes me particularly satisfied is that the project will be co-financed through EU funding, which means that Slovakia, with the participation of Italian companies, will be profiting from EU opportunities for the transport corridor of the trans-European network. I am particularly proud to see Italian
companies working on the number five section.

Another part of the economy, which is of interest in terms of cooperation, is small and medium-sized enterprises. Italy has the know-how for start-ups. It is very important so see little companies growing up for single projects. Italy is one of the examples, unlike Slovakia, that small companies can really drive regions. The sector makes up 70 percent of the country’s economy.

TSS: Italy is rich in historical monuments, which, on one hand, makes the country a place of interest for tourists, but on the other hand, requires huge investments into their maintenance and repair. Now, however, some of these reconstructions are also being financed by the private sector. What was the reason behind involving the private sector?
Italy has 50 UNESCO sites and, generally speaking, Italy has almost 65 percent of the world’s cultural heritage, according to UNESCO. In order to maintain this heritage, we need an incredible budget that no country has. Thus, it is important that we also attract the private sector for managing the monuments. On the other hand, the private sector can, too, benefit from these activities. Just to give a few examples, the Colosseum in Rome is under reconstruction, with Diego Della Valle, head of the luxury fashion goods company, contributing to this restoration. The Ponte di Rialto Bridge in Venice is managed by the Diesel fashion brand. Since fashion concentrates on beauty, caring for Italian monuments is a good match.

TSS: The Slovak audience was offered another annual edition of the Dolce Vitaj festival, while Poprad held the third edition of the Viva Italia festival, making Italian culture an important part of Slovakia’s summer cultural events. What has been the response of Slovaks to these cultural events or to Italian culture in general?
The cultural activities are mainly organised by the Italian Cultural Institute and the response of the Slovak public is very enthusiastic. People actually give us suggestions on what they would like to see. It is actually a two-way street. Slovaks and Italians share a passion for music of all kinds: opera or philharmonics. After the Cacciapaglia concert, many young people were asking for an autograph. The concert of Ricchi e Poveri in Poprad was also a huge success, and everybody knew the words, singing along.

As for other aspects of Italy, one month ago I visited Gymnázium L. Sáru secondary school for the closing ceremony of the year. They have two bilingual sections, and I was amazed to listen to some Slovak students speaking Italian with a Roman accent. There is a permanent interest in studying Italian language.