Guided by a "southern feeling"

THREE copies of The Name of the Rose, a breathtaking shot of the Sicilian horizon and an old map of Italy are some of the items that visitors to Antonino Provenzano’s office will notice immediately. However, what won’t be so apparent at first sight is the fact that the Italian ambassador is about to wrap up his four-year mission to Slovakia, which, as he says, was packed with exciting developments: Slovakia's joining the EU, its entrance into Schengen and its being approved for the eurozone.

Antonino Provenzano Antonino Provenzano (Source: Jana Liptáková)

THREE copies of The Name of the Rose, a breathtaking shot of the Sicilian horizon and an old map of Italy are some of the items that visitors to Antonino Provenzano’s office will notice immediately. However, what won’t be so apparent at first sight is the fact that the Italian ambassador is about to wrap up his four-year mission to Slovakia, which, as he says, was packed with exciting developments: Slovakia's joining the EU, its entrance into Schengen and its being approved for the eurozone.

For Provenzano, Slovakia and Italy share some “southern feeling” that puts the nations on the same wavelength and makes their interaction smooth and the contact close. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Provenzano about the challenges of Schengen membership, the Union for the Mediterranean, the role of small and medium-sized businesses, and regional disparities.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Over the past four years you've witnessed Slovakia’s most important moments on its road to Europe. What are the challenges that Slovakia will face now, after joining the Schengen zone and being approved for the euro?
Antonino Provenzano (AP): I had the privilege of arriving in Slovakia a couple months after Slovakia joined the European Union and I also witnessed the country’s entry into Schengen and now the finalization of Slovakia’s accession into the eurozone. A country that, in 15 years, can go from independence to the euro, should serve as an example for the rest of the world. Some difficult moments are still ahead of Slovakia, which, after its entry into the eurozone, will have to try to maintain its pace of growth and watch its inflation and budgetary policies.

When Slovakia joins the euro there will be no safety net, and only the country’s economic and budgetary performance will decide how economically comfortable or uncomfortable Slovakia will be in the euro family. For Slovakia, and for any other EU country for that matter, the name of the game is competition. On this giant market of nearly 500 million people, many of them with the same currency, any services or goods that Slovakia, or any other country, offers that do not meet the standard the market desires are simply left out without mercy.

Of course, different governmental economical policies might help, but not enough to overcome problems of productivity.

TSS: What options do small nations have when it comes to influencing global policies or sensitive foreign issues? Can they compete in this area with larger nations, let alone superpowers?
AP: Today in foreign policy, no country has a monopoly on wisdom. Cleverly, Slovakia joined the euro-Atlantic family and positioned itself where it historically and traditionally belongs. Foreign policy is a matter of consensus in a broader family, and the policies of Slovakia and Italy are similar since they face global problems that require global solutions. The asset that Slovakia has and can contribute to the international forum, in my opinion, is pragmatism. You are pragmatic because history has taught you to be so and global issues today need much pragmatism.

TSS: You once said that you sense a sort of “southern feeling”, or breeze, in Slovakia, which puts the country on a similar wavelength with Italy. What makes the mentality of the two nations so close?
AP: When we say “south”, though being a very relative concept, we mean a set of characteristics which basically allows us to say that there is a certain “northern” and “southern” approach. For me, Slovakia has got some southern characteristics that make the country 'readable' for Italians, as much as Italy is 'readable' for Slovaks. The countries share at least four or five aspects that create a similarity between them. First of all, Italy and Slovakia are both very historical and cultural nations with relatively young political independence. Politically, Slovakia is only 15 years old while Italy is 148 years old, which makes us old historical nations with a relatively new political life.

Also, both Italians and Slovaks are deeply connected to the land through agriculture, historical tradition, ethnology and even a certain 'folklore-istic' approach. We both have the soul of farmers; we are not merchants or sailors. Thirdly, both nations have a deep Catholic tradition, while the fourth characteristic is that, in past, we often had our destiny determined by our neighbours. Further, Slovakia, similarly to Italy, is divided into three parts based on economic development: Italy has the North, the Center and the South while Slovakia has the West, the Center and the East. Different social and economic policies are required for each part. These are the characteristics that make Slovakia seem more southern to me than, for example, the Czech Republic or Austria or Germany.

I think this helps us communicate even when we do not speak the same language, and our communication shows that there are some things that we see in the same way under any given circumstances.

TSS: Italy has backed the idea of the Union for the Mediterranean (UPM), a union of non-EU member countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea and all the EU members. Some have called it a road to re-drawing the EU security map; some have said it is a way to deal with the challenges of Turkish membership. How has Italy rationalised its support? What is the significance of this union for small countries like Slovakia?
AP: It is a recent initiative for the EU, but it is an idea that has never been new for us, given our geography. Italy is in the middle of the Mediterranean: a big lake around which 500 million people live. Italy, during its 3,000-year history, has been touched both by people coming from the north and people coming from the south and an interest in the Mediterranean is something natural for my homeland.

However, this area contains some of the most sensitive political issues in the entire world and it also is the most diversified socio-economical and political area. The region calls for dialogue that should be constructed sensitively since it pertains to many complex areas: economic, political and even sociological.

Treating the Mediterranean wisely is crucial for the well-being of the whole European Union. The pathology of the Mediterranean is illegal immigration, for example, and it can only be solved in a global way. The EU and countries in the region need to work towards a situation where people will no longer be forced to leave their homes, rather than stopping them and sending them back by plane.

TSS: How has Italy been coping with the challenge of illegal immigration?
AP: It is a huge issue for Italy since we have sea frontiers that illegal immigrants cross. Illegal migrants coming by sea are first of all in trouble and need to be helped to reach the shore under international rules. Slovakia has a Schengen border with Ukraine, which is a land frontier and, as such, you can apply different methods of monitoring and patrolling. It is more difficult on sea, where the humanitarian aspect is much more pressing. Italy also has a huge responsibility towards the EU because of the Schengen area. Schengen is like a huge bird cage: it is difficult to get in, but once you are in, you can fly freely in any direction. Countries that have a Schengen border have a big responsibility, not only towards themselves but also towards the rest of the European Union.
TSS: Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of Italy’s economy. What are the most important conditions for a well-functioning SME environment? What can Slovakia learn from Italy’s experiences?
AP: For a small country like Slovakia, attracting large foreign investments and growing faster is certainly a recipe for success. There are not many alternatives to a big automotive factory, which in six months can produce 3,000 jobs. It is certainly [dependent on] the will of foreign investors, who come from outside, and depends on the country’s ability to provide qualified labour.

Small and medium-sized businesses are built on the local people’s ability to use their potential, with their ability to take a risk and involve their families and the cooperation of the district. SME cannot produce a good product unless there is a friendly environment.

Ferrari was one of the most successful small and medium-sized firm in Italy, which, after all, remained a medium-sized firm. The inventor, founder and the genius behind Ferrari, Mr. Ferrari himself, has never left his own hometown, Maranello, and apparently has only been in Rome once. He found everything he needed to be both economically and culturally stimulated to produce a product in the region.

Small and medium-sized firms reply not only to the genuine nature of an idea but also the people’s willingness to risk some capital and to work very hard, which cannot succeed without a friendly environment that supports creativity.

One of the leading manufacturers of gym and fitness equipment was founded in Italy about 25 years ago. The company started in a garage when the owner tried to help solve a relative's back problems about 23-25 years ago. Since then, it has become a world leader in producing sport equipment.

In Italy, there has always been a healthy interaction among all elements of society, which helps small manufactures. The flavour of the Italian cappuccino that you drink at the coffee house just around the corner from your company is just as important as anything else in creating the final product. It was not invented in Italy overnight, but rather is the result of many centuries of activity.

Besides, SME is a product of the community and not a single guy operating in the desert. Of course you can be a big manufacturer in the desert, but that is the domain of huge investments.

TSS: Do these small and medium sized firms also have a different approach to training their employees and preserving different professions?

AP: In order to invest in the training of employees, companies must first make a profit and establish themselves. However, once they do, they can secure excellent vocational training for their employees.

Big companies teach their employees very little: you learn to handle one device, but in order to practice that skill you need a €130 million plant. In small and medium-sized firms, the owner not only builds a personal relationship with the employee, but could also finance a school or social activities in small villages. The firms become members of the community and no longer have only an economic aspect but also are involved in cultural and social issues.

TSS: In this globalising world, will Italy be able to maintain its network of these family-based businesses?
AP: New growing economies, like China, for example, are becoming capable of manufacturing products at a cost that is unbeatable and thus are appealing to the market. On the short term, the challenge is that we come up with a product that, in terms of quality, idea or intuition, will be one inch ahead of the products that other nations can copy and manufacture.

On the long-term, the goal should be for these markets to join efforts. Instead of invading the market with cheap, though high-quality, products, they should become partners in EU manufacturing by using our ideas and their ability to combine them with the skills and price of their manpower.

TSS: Countries like Slovakia have finally realised the importance of teaching foreign languages, with English and German being the dominant languages. However, because of Italy’s cultural appeal and the country being a popular tourist destination, some Slovaks are studying Italian.
AP: Certainly, the general interest that Slovaks have in Italian culture and language is not balanced when it comes to the interest of Italians in Slovak culture and language. You are also helped by the fact that Slovaks' ability to learn foreign languages is unparalleled with Italians’ ability to learn foreign languages. I've heard Slovaks speaking Italian in the most unexpected places, and it would hardly work vice-versa. Certainly, the interest of Slovakia in Italy is paramount. We have the excellent bilingual high-school Ladislava Saru, which, every year, presents nearly 30 young Slovaks with a certificate in Italian on Italian subjects. They are educated and fluent in Italian and they remain in Slovakia, potentially enriching cultural and economical links between the countries. In 2006, there was a 10-percent increase in Slovaks who were interested in Italian-language courses at the Italian Cultural Institute. In 2007, the study of Italian was added to high-schools in Galanta, Banská Bystrica and Pieštany. Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica and Commenius University in Bratislava offer Italian studies, while an Italian department has been created at the University of Trnava as well.

TSS: Education exchange seems to work as one of the best forms of contact between the countries. What are the most notable educational links that the countries have developed?
AP: Quite a good number of initiatives have been organized by the Italian-Slovak Chamber of Commerce, an important institution for us. There are agreements with the Italian Bocconi University in Milano, the University of Bergamo, the University of Venice, the University of Udine and University of Padova. The Association of Magnificent Rectors of Universities of Italy gives two scholarships to Slovaks every year. As for education, there could be more exchanges, but the channels are definitely open. As for Italians in Slovakia, the language issue remains a big barrier. Italian and Slovak are not international languages and are not officially spoken in any other countries. Italians are not much encouraged to go and study other non-international languages.

TSS: How would you assess the commercial contacts between the countries?
AP: According to a study done by the Italian Chamber of Commerce, which is not an official study, but nevertheless uses data from its 300 members, Italy-related firms that have invested in Slovakia should give work to nearly 40,000 Slovaks. If you consider that every family has children, this comes close to 100,000 people who are in some way connected to Italian capital. This is a huge aspect of trust and shows that Slovakia is now an international reality.

TSS: Regional disparities like the gap between the wealthy west and the under-fed east remain a serious problem for Slovakia, and Italy faces similar challenges trying to balance the difference between its north and south. How has Italy been dealing with this challenge?
AP: This is “The Problem” of Italy that we have had since the unification of Italy. All the governments since then have been facing what we have called the “southern issue”, created by different socio-economic situations, different attitudes and mentalities.

There have been governmental investments and institutions created, but for the southern part of Italy these are still far from solutions. However, what we know for certain is that pouring money into the area will not solve the problem. The local population has to be involved and any kind of paternalistic or neo-Colonialist approach should be avoided. Nobody likes to be told what to do. Social and economical help from above will get lost like water in the sand unless it involves the locals. Any problem that is a leftover of centuries requires a long time to solve.

TSS: What have been the most memorable moments of your mission in Slovakia?
AP: The overall experience has been memorable. I have been received extremely warmly, even with a lack of language skills, and I have made many friends. Professionally, I have actually had what can be considered a diplomat's top moments, which are the visit of the president of Slovakia to Rome and the visit of two Italian PMs to Bratislava. I was actually the first ambassador to present credentials to President Gašparovič.

On a personal level, I traveled a lot in Slovakia and wherever I went, I noticed a great amount of respect that is still here towards the ambassadorial institution.

General facts

Political system:Republic
Total area:301,263 sq kilometres
Population:58.8 million
Italy includes the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, Elba and about 70 other smaller ones.

There are two small independent states within peninsular Italy: Vatican City, in Rome, and the Republic of San Marino.
Source: EU website:

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