The Slovak Spectator spoke with Ambassador Meucci, among other things, about the migration crisis and problems that some Italian banks are facing.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Citizenship laws have been at the centre of attention in Italy since before the summer started. Slovakia has some of the strictest citizenship legislation in Europe. What is the debate in Italy about?
Gabriele Meucci (GM): The laws in Italy have been effective since 1992, which set the very traditional model ius sanguinis system from 1912. It reflected the reality of Italy as an emigration country at that time. But in the last 20-30 years Italy has become an immigration country. It automatically gives citizenship only to those babies born in Italy whose parents’ countries do not allow them to get citizenship. In consequence, there may come a generation of people born and raised in Italy, completely Italian, but without Italian citizenship. If that happens, it means that something went wrong.
TSS: Italy is still dealing with a high number of refugees, many are saved from drowning in the sea and brought to Italian ports.
GM: The latest statistics show more than 180,000 people have arrived via the sea. Some media reports have suggested that NGOs’ boats that bring the rescued people to the Italian ports sometimes disappear from the areas that are too close to the waters they should not be in. Is there anything there that we do not know, some business going on? Because these people pay several thousand euros each for tickets. It is a service – transport, and it costs more than a first-class ticket with Air France. They all come from African countries, some are in difficult situations but not really war. So they do not qualify for the status of refugees.
Interestingly, they come from former colonies, presently countries that somebody would call failed states. Interesting enough, none of them come from former Italian colonies. This is also why the Italian public is asking: why should we pay for the colonial mistakes of others?
TSS: There are declared efforts in the EU to help Italy.
GM: For the moment they are just words. But let’s be clear, Italy is not going through a catastrophic emergency. Italy is a country of 60 million and rich; we are managing, and the total number of foreigners coming to Italy is still very low, for instance compared to Germany. But if the trend continues, the situation could become unsustainable.In order to achieve sustainability, some pressure on Italy should be alleviated. One of the issues is all these private ships with flags from different countries. They go so close to the Libyan borders, that if you look at the map and you apply international law, which says that when you rescue people who are sinking, you have to bring them to the closest safe port. Which is not always necessarily Sicily, it might be in Tunisia. The idea to close the ports to those ships that are not permitted would create the phenomenon of these ships going elsewhere.
TSS: Slovakia is one of the countries that has been reluctant to accept migrants as part of redistribution plans even in very small numbers. How is this viewed in Italy?
GM: In Italy the government, the public opinion, the media are not very much focused on particular countries, as much as they are focused on the EU. Of course, the EU is comprised of member states, some cooperate more, some not. But there is no particular stigma towards any individual country. There is no negative sentiment about Slovakia, not at all. Here, as an Italian ambassador in Slovakia, I feel that there is embarrassment among the population, among politicians, some people are approaching me to tell me about it. Italians do not really accuse Slovakia of anything. We want this issue to become a European one, dealt with by European ideas and European support. Because we are part of the border of Europe, Schengen, and it cannot be possible that if you have millions of people pressuring one particular zone of the border, only the ones living at the border have to work on it while the others watch.
TSS: So the EU is seen as an entire block that is unhelpful.
GM: Yes. The problem is that there is no leadership. There is nobody who would go on TV and make a speech of 20 minutes to convince people to change their minds. They are doing the opposite, they are reading polls and whatever comes out of them, politicians repeat it to get consensus. If we go on like this, we will put Europe under ground. We need a vision.
TSS: Is the current situation concerning the migration crisis creating a lot of negative sentiment among Italians towards the EU?
GM: Yes, Italians are asking themselves more and more why everybody is so strict on financial regulations and when it comes to regulation of migration nobody cares. Also, when you become a European Union member, you get the whole package, you cannot pick what you want – like the EU funds, and then when you have to do something else, you do not listen. That is not acceptable. And of course there are already countries that are feeling the consequences.
TSS: Speaking of financial discipline, there has been a lot happening in Italy. Intesa San Paolo is preparing to “save” two other Italian banks. So what is the problem with some Italian banks at this point?
GM: Since 2008 there have been problems with banks in many countries in the EU and different countries did different things about it. In the five years after the financial crisis, the German government gave the banks in Germany €260 billion, the UK gave its banks €207 billion, while Italy gave exactly €4 billion to its banks. So let’s compare: the country that was the most disciplined and did not intervene during the financial crisis simply because there was no need to intervene was Italy. And then you have a country that gave €260 billion from taxpayers money to save the banks. Now we have 4 billion and it is such a big deal?
TSS: There were reports about Intesa in Slovakia because it owns one of the biggest banks here.
GM: In 2014 the major countries that basically gave hundreds of billions of euros to their banks started changing the rules. Because they said: We do not want to do this any more. But we did not do it before; even without the European bailout rules we respected the philosophy of non-intervention with the public finances in saving banks. Now there is the bailout system and we have a problem because we did not do it before. The financial system of Italy was intact until 2011 – there is an anecdote that this is because the Italian bankers do not speak English very well so they did not want to sign contracts about derivatives. Italian banks are the ones in Europe with the least amount of derivatives and toxic assets. But the major banks in Europe, not in Italy, are completely intoxicated with those assets.
TSS: Intesa is one of the biggest Italian investors in Slovakia. Some other big investors are now on the way out of Slovakia, like Enel or UniCredit.
GM: I spoke with them and they are not. UniCredit has a policy of not commenting on anything in the news, so everybody is well aware there that there was the report, but they are not selling their banks.
TSS: So is Slovakia still an interesting destination for Italian businesses?
GM: Yes. I think we should get rid of this impression that Slovakia is a place where you can invest because there is cheap labour. That is a thing of the past. We now have people coming here for work. There are at least 500 people from Italy under the age of 30 presently working in Bratislava. They have probably the same salaries as in Italy, but a better lifestyle.
Investors come here because they feel welcome. People here understand that investment is a good thing, that it is good to produce here. There is no prejudice against industrial development. Secondly, they have very efficient relations with the local authorities that evidently care about how the investment is going. Slovakia has a reputation among the Italian business community as a reliable country that respects pacts, that gives space to develop.
TSS: Do Slovaks know a lot about Italy? Is there anything that is not so well-known among Slovaks that you would recommend?
GM: Italy is so specific, it is so rich in culture, so in my job it is always difficult to present the idea of modern Italy. People are attached to the model of the ancient times, and the Renaissance. For example, most people think that the main export from Italy is food. But it’s not. It’s industrial machinery. Italy is the leader in the world in agricultural machinery, New Holland is Italian. If you go to Canada, they use Italian products. Italy is a country of engineers, but it is not very well known.
Slovaks know Italy much better than Italians know Slovakia. It is simply a matter of size, age, as Slovakia is a young state. Many people in Italy still talk about Czechoslovakia. Slovakia does not have a big number of Italian tourists, it is still a relatively unknown destination.
TSS: What would you recommend Slovak tourists to see in Italy?
GM: Italy is very focused on a few things that everybody wants to see, like Rome, Florence, Venice. But Italy is a country of little towns, hundreds of places worth seeing, sometimes even more beautiful than the biggest attractions. History is so abundant there, everywhere you go you find something fascinating. The best way to visit is to take you car, your motorbike, or your bicycle and wander around without a destination, explore and discover. I do the same in Slovakia.
TSS: So which part of Slovakia has made an impression on you?
GM: What I find most fascinating is that most of the scenery is intact. Especially in central Slovakia, the Tatras. You see valleys of green that make it seem like humans arrived there only recently. But then you see the historical towns and the monuments that are so old and well-maintained. I like it very much, and the food is good.
TSS: What would you recommend to an Italian tourist in Slovakia?
GM: You have two categories of tourists, the mass ones who go with travel agents, by bus, in big groups. You have to offer them an understandable, pre-packaged trip. And then there is the category that I believe I belong to, more independent, able to approach other languages and culture, willing to learn something. Both require a different approach; the first group is well-served, the second is a niche that is very interesting because there are many areas, especially the mountains and the art cities. I was at the opera in Banská Bystrica and I would never have expected such high quality in such a small city. It was also amazing architecturally.
TSS: That is a big compliment from someone coming from Milan.
GM: It was amazing. And it is certainly an asset. People are looking more and more for quiet places, nature, and Slovakia has a lot of those.
TSS: You have been here for only half a year now. What are your plans for your term here?
GM: I spent the last part of my diplomatic career in Kosovo, heading a mission of 1,500 people with executive powers in criminal justice, war crimes, organised crime. I was head of the EULEX mission in Kosovo. When I came here, it was a positive shock. There is less tension and stress for me here. And Slovakia is very interesting; it is a Slavic country so I can pick up a lot of the language thanks to my knowledge of Serbo-Croat.
TSS: There is a very lively business exchange between Italy and Slovakia so it is a busy posting.
GM: We need to better develop trade, investments, and culture. Nothing is in an emergency situation, but we can do more.