BRUNELLA BORZI believes that the Mediterranean Sea is not a sea that divides people but unites them. She also says that Italians do not fear contacts with other cultures; they have it in their DNA. And she believes that immigration is a positive challenge but also stresses the importance of European Union solidarity on this issue. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Borzi, Italy’s ambassador to Slovakia, about human rights, immigration, recent European Parliament elections and the Italian community in Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Before being appointed to Slovakia, your specialisation at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also included human rights. What do you view as the most urgent human rights-related challenges that the European Union faces today?
Brunella Borzi (BB): Today the most urgent human rights challenges pertain to what the previous secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, called the right to live free from hunger and free from fear. Yet, this is a shared responsibility that concerns Italy in the same way as Slovakia or any other EU country. We live in such an interconnected world that people’s rights, for instance, to nutrition, sustainable development, a protected environment or energy security are very much linked to human rights and are urgent issues for all developing countries.
Italy this year holds the presidency of the G8, and at the L’Aquila summit of G8 leaders it highlighted these challenges, which are very real in a world where for example one billion people are still affected by hunger and malnutrition and lack food security. The failure to address these issues would have negative consequences for the whole of Europe because it is not a fortress and it has not been made to become one. The Italian presidency has achieved an important goal with the commitment of the G8 leaders to mobilise $20 billion over three years for food security programmes.
G8 leaders also reached agreement on the importance of keeping the increase in average global temperature below two degrees Celsius, acknowledging the Italian approach that climate change cannot be addressed without involving the main actors - major emerging countries such as India and China, but also Brazil and others.
In the face of the global economic crisis, the G8 representatives agreed that there is a need for a new code in conducting international business and finance and that this code must be based on ethics and morality and transparency.
TSS: Italy has changed from a nation of emigrants to a target country for mass immigration over the past couple of decades. Your country has also urged the EU to devote more attention to the issue of immigration and also to share the burden of taking in immigrants. What are the challenges that this change has brought to Italy?
BB: The change from being a country producing emigrants into a country, which is now receiving immigrants happened very suddenly; I would say in the late 1980s. We were not prepared since we had been so accustomed to being emigrants ourselves. Initially, the number of incoming people was not that high and thus it did not pose serious problems for society. But this has changed as well. However, I need to stress that immigration is a positive challenge and without immigrants many sectors of our industry or agriculture would not have reached their present level of development. Besides, we should not forget the role that, for example, Italian emigrants played in the United States or in Australia, where mass migration did have a justification and a positive effect upon these societies. As long as a country can maintain a balance and accommodate foreign workers, immigration is a positive challenge. Problems start to come when the receiving country is no longer in a position to offer them work and the services they need.
Also, we have to make a difference between documented and undocumented immigration. While I am not saying that all illegal immigrants represent a problem for a country, it is clear that when they cannot find decent work they are easy victims for criminal networks, which might exploit them and use them for illegal activities. Many immigrants are coming to Italy by risking their lives and we provide them first aid on humanitarian grounds, but the burden is quite relevant.
Mediterranean European countries are more exposed to migrations, especially from the northern border of Africa, and that’s why it is normal that Italian authorities stress the importance of European Union solidarity on this particular issue. Given the fact that we are all now linked through the Schengen system, once immigrants reach Italy they are potentially reaching many other countries. The last EU ministerial council recognised the global responsibility of the EU for immigrants. The next important step should be to agree to a common policy on immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees.
In any case, it is also clear that cooperation with the country of origin is crucial as well. That’s why Italy has always worked on a diplomatic level to keep the best cooperative relationships with our friends on the northern borders of Africa, because without their help it would be very difficult to achieve any regulation of this phenomenon.
TSS: The integration of migrants into societies is becoming an urgent issue even for countries that had assumed that immigration would not be such an important issue for their societies.
BB: Immigrants have to be put on a completely equal footing with any other citizen as far as working rights, social security and education rights for their children are concerned. Of course, there must also be some acceptance of certain principles on the part of immigrants, and societies must carefully consider where to draw the line between the right of immigrants to their own habits and culture and their duties towards the society that is hosting them.
TSS: How has the local population in Italy adjusted to the reality of increased migration?
BB: Italy, as any other Mediterranean country, is welcoming and open to foreigners due to the lessons learned from a very long history, moreover we have a fresh memory of what it means to be an immigrant. My perception is that Italians have accepted the presence of immigrant workers very well. Of course, some problems could arise when, for example, the number of immigrants without papers swells: this might be inductive to intolerance. Therefore it is very important that immigration is fairly regulated at an EU level, in order to avoid any situation that could favour negative reactions in the host countries.
TSS: Slovakia posted the lowest turnout in the whole EU during recent elections to the European Parliament (EP). What challenges do governments now face when addressing their citizens’ declining interest in EP elections?
BB: The only positive effect that I have noticed in the statistics from the elections to the European Parliament is that the presence of women in the EP has increased. That’s at least one positive factor. I am afraid that – though it’s not a very original thought – the EP is not perceived by people as an institution doing something concrete for their life. This is probably the main point.
I think there is no other way to improve the situation than trying to keep people more informed about what the EP is doing for them. We are going into a period in which the EP will have even greater importance in our everyday life. Perhaps the EP itself should also find ways to better communicate its activities, though I do not mean that as criticism.
TSS: On April 28, 2009, at the Education Ministry, you signed on behalf of Italy a document on cooperation between Italy and Slovakia in the area of science and technology. What are the main objectives for cooperation between Italy and Slovakia between 2009 and 2011?
BB: The original agreement on scientific and technological cooperation between Italy and Slovakia was signed back in 1990 and we are now working on updates. The purpose is to combine agreement on cultural cooperation with agreement on scientific and technological cooperation and I hope that the next document can be signed within the first half of next year, or even sooner. What we have signed now is the executive programme, and chosen some areas of common interest. These programmes mainly pertain to exchange of researchers in different sectors for the next two and half years; we also picked ten projects in the sector of basic science, information and communication technologies, agriculture, life sciences, new technologies and innovative materials. My wish is that the Italian budget for this exchange could be expanded in 2012, but right now we do live in times of severe budget cuts.
TSS: Has the business potential between the two countries been fully explored? What do you see as areas that might still offer more potential?
BB: I would like to refer to the very recent visit that Italian Minister of Economic Development Claudio Scajola paid to Slovakia in mid-July, during which he met his Slovak counterpart, Minister of Economy Ľubomír Jahnátek. Both of them also attended a Forum on Economic Partnership between Italy and Slovakia. We already have in Slovakia almost 400 Italian enterprises, while mutual trade tripled between 1999 and 2008 from €1.5 billion to €4.5 billion. Moreover, in the same period Italian investors invested €3.6 billion in Slovakia. This is a very positive trend but, as Minister Scajola said, we do not want to be content with this result. We have a very ambitious goal: within three years, we would like to become the fourth or fifth largest trading partner with Slovakia. Up to now, we have a lot of Italian enterprises that work in, let’s say, traditional sectors. We would like to see Italian firms entering the innovation and information technology sector. We are very interested in the field of energy. Of course, there are already considerable Italian investments in the nuclear energy field but there is more room for cooperation in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Still, the Enel investment and the fact that it is being made in a financially very demanding time is a good showcase of the Italian willingness to increase economic partnership with Slovakia.
We could improve links in the area of protection of the environment, and then there is also the tourism sector. Slovakia has a lot of potential in spa tourism, for example, and also other health tourism. It would be interesting for Italians because tourism can certainly be a two-way street and it could be a very promising field that is worth exploring.
As for the size of the Italian community, at our consular section we have a little over 600 Italians on our registry of Italian residents in Slovakia, but there are a good number of Italians who move between the two countries but still have residence in Italy, so I think that the actual number could be as many as double that.
TSS: The Dolce Vitaj festival has already entered its second year. What are the main ambitions of the festival and how do you assess the response of locals to this festival?
BB: Slovaks have a very sympathetic attitude towards Italians. This openness and empathy also extends to our culture. I was really surprised to discover how much our culture is appreciated in Slovakia. I was told that the language barrier could to a certain extent discourage people from accessing culture, but in the case of Slovaks this assumption was completely wrong. With this year’s festival we really wanted to live up to the expectations and achieve at least the same success that the previous festival had. The Italian Culture Institute and its Director, Mrs Teresa Triscari, did a wonderful job. In the end we were very satisfied and pleased by the forthcoming attitude of our Slovak partners and our sponsors, who I would like to thank once more for their engagement and support.
A special award, the Elsa Morante literary prize, was given to film director Juraj Jakubisko, who was a pupil of Fellini, and to Italian film director Marco Risi. We also presented awards to some Italian and Slovak translators. Translator and linguist František Hruška was also given an award and I had the honour of presenting the Slovak poet Viliam Turčáni with a prize for the Slovak translation of La Divina Comedia by Dante Alighieri, which was awarded by the Italian Minister of Culture under the auspices of the President of the Republic.
Events also featured the celebration of the centenary of futurist movement, which was launched in 1909 by the Futurist Manifesto written by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. An exhibition of futurist drawing was hosted at the Slovak National Art Gallery. I was really enthusiastic to see how all these events were welcomed by the Slovak public. Now we are considering turning Dolce Vitaj into a yearly Italian festival in Slovakia.
TSS: Do you feel that Italians are familiar with Slovakia?
BB: Italians, in particular those from the northern part of the country, know Slovakia pretty well because of the long tradition of Italians moving northwards; we have examples also from during the Renaissance, when Italian painters and architects came to Slovakia. A further effort should be made to introduce more Italians to Slovakia because my experience is that Italians feel very much at home in Slovakia. People here are very friendly and very open. Moreover I have been told by Italian visitors how pleasantly surprised they are by the high degree of organisation, efficiency and civic order of Slovak towns.
TSS: How would you assess interest in Italian language and culture in Slovakia?
BB: Slovaks’ interest in learning Italian as a foreign language is also a demonstration of their appreciation for Italian culture, because I think that the majority of Slovaks who like to learn Italian do so to access Italian culture. Of course, there are Slovaks who learn Italian because they need it for their business, but they are still in a minority. The majority still want to learn Italian because it is becoming the language of culture. You could say that these are people who love to learn about Italian culture.
Italians indeed are also open to other cultures. It is very much related to our Mediterranean nature, because the Mediterranean sea it is not a sea that divides people but rather has united them over centuries and these people are accustomed to this contact between different nations and people and do not really fear contacts. We have this sort of openness in our DNA, so we are open while still maintaining our characteristics.