Manlio Di Stefano is the Undersecretary of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2018. He was first elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2013 and, during the XVII Legislature, he was the head of the Five Star Movement in the Commission for Foreign and European Affairs.

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The interview

Investorvisa.it: During your tenure as Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, you have met with many foreign delegations to talk about Italy’s economic relations with other countries. Which are the main issues, positive or otherwise, of foreign dignitaries you meet?

Di Stefano: Over the last year, during my many meetings and visits abroad, I had the pleasure of noticing how appreciated is what Italian companies are doing abroad, especially when it comes to their avant-garde technological expertise and their attention to the human dimension in doing business. I think that these characteristics are ideal in promoting the growth and long-term sustainable development of a country facing radical socio-economic changes. Furthermore, I found out that Italy’s name is no longer linked to just some sectors, such as luxury goods, fashion, design, and food. Recognition of our excellent industrial machinery, energy and aerospace industries is increasing more and more among our foreign partners.

You have met with the representative of many countries this year, and you headed the Italian delegation to Malaysia and the Philippines. Can you tell us what emerged from these meetings regarding possible economic partnerships and bilateral investments?

Our politician-led economic delegations, in particular to faraway countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines, allow us to reach a better mutual understanding, establishing direct contact with the biggest local actors and, above all, they let us provide that vital institutional support to Italian companies engaged with complex and unexplored markets. These missions also represent an opportunity to emphasize how the Italian economy and that of other countries can be complementary to each other. Asian partners are particularly dynamic and rich in raw materials. My mission to Malaysia laid the groundwork to establish a strategic partnership with one of the most prominent ASEAN countries and others, such as China, India, Pakistan, Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, with which bilateral free trade agreements have been signed. For our companies, which participated by attending to specifically dedicated meetings, the mission also gathered much useful information about investments in Malaysia, especially regarding bureaucratic procedures and litigations which are still a big obstacle for investors. The Philippines are also a very important, populous country with a vibrant economy. I would like to remember our meetings with the Asian Development Bank top management and with the Italian functionaries working there. I took the opportunity to stress the need to better inform Italian companies about the Bank’s procurement procedures so that they will be able to participate in more of its tenders.

Do you think that, given the recent change in the majority supporting the government, we can expect a renewal of Italian foreign policy, in particular when it comes to economic diplomacy?

For years, economic diplomacy has been at the heart of Italian foreign policy. I believe that the reform, implemented by the new Government, increasingly puts the economic dimension at the core of the agenda of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, providing the Farnesina (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) with human and financial resources that will surely give new momentum to Italy’s projection abroad and the promotion of our excellence.

Italy signed, shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping visit in February, a Memorandum of Understanding with China to participate in their Belt and Road Initiative. How can such a commitment benefit the Italian economy and especially its attractiveness to Chinese investors?

Signing the BRI-focused Memorandum of Understanding with China, our country chose to take advantage of all the commercial and economic opportunities stemming from enhancing the Euro-Asian connection and that can positively affect what in Italy we call “Sistema Paese” or the country system of operations. The Memorandum is the framework, based on European principles and standards such as transparency, inclusiveness, sustainability, on which we will develop this connection. The Italian government has a long-standing interest in favouring Euro-Asian trade routes both maritime, especially in the Mediterranean Sea, and terrestrial. Our objective is promoting the potential development of synergies with the Italian port, transport, and infrastructure system, thereby emphasising our central place in the Mediterranean Sea, in line with the strengthening of the Trans-European Transport Network. The Memorandum also opens up further potential opportunities for the Italian economy. Italian companies operating in the construction, shipbuilding, energy distribution, and infrastructure sectors will be able to participate in ongoing projects tied to BRI routes. This agreement with the Chinese government could also create numerous opportunities for our companies to enter the Chinese market, as well as helping in establishing strategic partnerships between the two countries’ companies to operate on the Chinese, Asian and Italian markets.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also visited our country in July. What is the Government stance on Italy-Russia economic relations, especially when it comes to sanctions against Moscow and their impact on bilateral investments?

Due to the 2014 crisis, oil price and ruble decline, and the introduction of sanctions and countersanctions, trade between Russia and Italy drastically decreased. Over the last few years, while complying with the current sanctioning regime, we worked hard to invert this trend and trade figures for 2017 and 2018, and results are positive for both years. The Italian strategy to encourage investments in Russia aims at consolidating industrial and commercial relations, promoting Made in Italy and “Made with Italy”, thus contributing to the ongoing modernization and diversification of the Russian economy. We know that current figures are still far from the record ones of 2013 and that the international situation is not encouraging. Nevertheless, we look at the future with moderate optimism thanks both to the potential of our leading sectors (mechanical industry, food, fashion, furniture), and to a more recent, but equally full of potential, collaboration in other industries (pharmaceuticals, animal husbandry, start-ups, and innovation).

On 6 June, I had the pleasure and honour of attending to the International Forum in St. Petersburg, where a panel dealing with Italy-Russia relations was hosted. The Forum is an increasingly important platform for promoting dialogue between our companies and economic, commercial and financial institutions. There I could witness the determination and commitment of the two countries’ companies to reinforce our firm and structured existing bonds, and to explore increasingly innovative sectors and ways of co-operating. Italian Prime Minister Conte discussed this at length with President Putin, during the latter’s visit to Rome, on 4 July. The high-level dialogue between the two countries allowed for profound reflection on the state and prospects of our collaboration that continues to remain a priority for both countries. These considerations were made keeping into account the obstacles deriving from sanctions and international tensions in general, concerning Ukraine and other issues.

In the past, you expressed concerns about Italy’s reputation and perception abroad, especially when it comes to international rankings. Appointing a “Mister Index”, as in someone to curate the country’s image abroad, has been long touted as a solution to this problem. What can Italy do, aside from that, to improve its reputation abroad?

We are aware that being able to attract investments and having a positive business climate is fundamental for an economy. To be attractive, we must be able to show what our country’s strengths are to the world. Therefore, our position in the leading international indexes measuring the competitiveness and attractiveness of our economic system is of paramount importance. For this reason, the “Cabina di Regia per l’Italia internazionale” defines the guiding principles and strategic guidelines, including the planning of resources, concerning the promotion abroad and internationalization of our production system. It has established a dedicated Working Group, consisting of everyone involved in the “Sistema Paese”: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economic Development, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Italian Trade & Investments Agency (ITA), the Bank of Italy, and Istat. Although the Government has not nominated an actual “Mr. Index” yet, I would like to remind everyone that, in these matters, the aftermentioned Work Group has taken its place in its activities. The Work Group took concrete action and began in-depth studies on five international indexes, including, for example, the World Bank Forum’s Ease Doing Business and the World Economic Forum’s World Competitiveness Index. Especially in the last year, the actions undertaken aimed at achieving a twofold objective. On the one hand, they work to identify and correct methodological flaws, gaps in the diffusion of information or inaccuracies linked to misrepresented facts; on the other hand, they started reflecting on concrete legislative-regulatory proposals to simplify bureaucratic procedures, and thus improve the Italian business environment attractiveness. To increase the reputation of our country abroad, we should consider embracing a communication strategy that will promote Italy as an investment destination while drawing attention every time we can to our most representative achievements.
Not everyone knows that, despite the common perception, Italy is one of the world’s leading countries in many sectors. We are a manufacturing power (one of the top 5 countries in the world in trade balance), a circular economy leader in Europe thanks to our waste recycling (76.9% of total waste produced is recycled), first in Europe in value-added in the agri-food sector and among world leaders in organic farming. We also are a creative powerhouse, boasting the highest number of design firms in the EU, and we are the second EU country for overnight stays for non-European tourists. Italian R&D investments place the country in the world’s top ten. Italy has the second-largest number of innovative companies (38.361) in the European Union after Germany (41.793). Italy is today the ninth world exporter holding a 2.8% share of global exports.
These are significant figures, which testify to the existence of favourable conditions for foreign investments in our productive system. Foreign-owned companies are often the ones that grow the most, are the most productive, and manage to hold a major share in foreign markets.

Foreign investments may represent a very good opportunity for Italian businesses looking for money to finance their projects. What does the government intend to do to promote them?

We need to strengthen our collaboration with foreign sovereign wealth funds to attract capital and investments in our country. A recent study by Bocconi University Sovereign Investment Lab found that from 2010 to 2018, sovereign wealth funds’ investments in Italy amounted to twelve billion euros. However, in 2018, no such investments were made. Given this, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs intends to reignite the collaboration with the wealthiest sovereign wealth funds, as they may be interested in investing in Italian companies with strong productive and technological potential. To this end, recently, as part of an increasingly fruitful collaboration with Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP), the Ministry and its entire diplomatic-consular network supported CDP candidature to organize the 2021 edition of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds (IFSWF). After the 2015 Milan edition, held jointly with the World Expo, hosting the event in Italy for the second time will help CDP maintain a high international profile and favour the attraction of foreign capital.
I believe that the Government action should prioritize boosting the South economy and all Southern regions’ appeal as a foreign investment destination to seize opportunities for development and employment. According to a recent A.T. Kearney report, only 2% of FDIs incoming in Italy are directed to the South, Sicily, and Sardinia. Creating Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to develop southern Italy port areas and companies can contribute to the increase in foreign investments entering the area. We must also continue to strengthen collaboration with local authorities, as they are indispensable partners for foreign investors. To promote the culture of foreign investment in our regions, we recently launched the Regional Investment Attraction Tours this time starting from the South. This is a joint project with the State-Regions Coordination Committee for investment attraction. The Committee includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry for Economic Development, ITA and the Conference of Regions and Autonomous Provinces of Trento and Bolzano. These events aim at enhancing cooperation between different governmental levels – international, national, regional and sub-regional – to promote a bottom-up effort to reorganize foreign investments management and attraction in local authorities and to develop public interest projects that will enrichen them. Over the last few years, the Tour reached four regions: Tuscany, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Lombardy. After a long pause, on September 18, we reached Apulia, during Bari’s Fiera del Levante.
Finally, I would like to highlight the importance of the Foreign Investment Attraction Committee (CAIE), whose Presidency will pass to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs once the ongoing reform comes into force. Therefore, the Ministry and its Economic Diplomacy division will have a more comprehensive control over policies and instruments to attract foreign investments.

The Italian investor visa has been available for almost two years. Do you think that the results have been satisfactory results when compared to the government’s expectations at the time of its inception?

I cannot express a comprehensive judgement right now since the entire process linked to the individual applications we received has not been concluded yet. The process is made up of three distinct phases. The first phase is for obtaining a two-year visa; after the second phase, you can get a two-year residence permit, while the third phase presents the option for a three-year renewal. The visa started to be available just at the end of 2017 and the first candidates applied for it in the first half of 2018. Hence, we are currently evaluating its effectiveness, but some results are already visible. In any case, we intend to review the entire system, in a joint effort with the Ministry of Economic Development, to make it more competitive.

Which are the most appealing sectors of the Italian economy to foreign entrepreneurs?

The sectors of the Italian economy that could arouse greater interest among foreign companies are the following: logistics, ICT, infrastructure, research and development, technology and innovation, tourism, and, of course, the traditional sectors that characterize our industrial system.

On the other hand, which countries could be the most interested in investing in Italian companies and why?

The Italian Trade Agency set up dedicated IDE Desks and around twenty FDI Units in countries that we consider a priority target for our investment attraction efforts. Seven of them started operating in 2019: London, Istanbul, Dubai, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Stockholm, Paris, Vienna, Bern, Doha, Tel Aviv, Mumbai, Sydney. We are planning to open three new offices in Madrid, Warsaw, and Seoul. Obviously, we should also engage with the countries where the most prominent sovereign investments funds are, including the United Arab Emirates, United States, Mexico, China, Panama, Australia, Singapore, Ireland, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, South Korea, Kuwait, Qatar, Russia, Oman, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.

As of 2020, the Ministry will be the only one in charge of defining the strategies to encourage the internationalisation of Italian companies and to promote them abroad. Do you think that this will improve your effectiveness? Is there anything that will benefit particularly from this reorganization?

I think that thanks to the new institutional framework introduced by the 104/2019 Legislative Decree, the management of foreign commerce and its strategies will benefit from a more unified approach, improving our support to the internationalization of companies and the promotion of Made in Italy. Firms that are already operating in foreign markets or are entering them will be able to benefit from a single integrated support platform, including Embassies, Consulates and ITA Offices abroad. At the same time, we will be able to protect our national interests better and to be more efficient in trade negotiations.
I would like to mention some of the advantages brought on by the reform. First, the Farnesina (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) will function as the sole institutional point of reference for entrepreneurs and trade associations when interacting with the internationalization of business and trade policy issues. Our entire network abroad, at the service of Italian companies, will improve the promotion of Made in Italy, the protection of our top products and commercial presence. Furthermore, not only the definition of the strategy to support the internationalization of the Italian production system is strengthened, but also its implementation, through direct supervision of the Italian Trade & Investments Agency by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in agreement with the Ministry of Economic Development. This reform seeks to improve bureaucratic work by making it more manageable and more effective.

The Ministry is involved in the Situation Room on Internationalization, an inter-ministerial committee to discuss and develop strategies for the promotion abroad and internationalisation of our production system. What are its main guidelines regarding the investor visa program?

The program guidelines can be found on a dedicated online portal (investorvisa.mise.gov.it), managed by the Ministry of Economic Development. In particular, I would like to mention that entrepreneurs coming from countries that are not members of the EU or not within the Schengen area that intend to make significant investments have the right to request a visa based on three specific strategic areas for the Italian economy and society. First off, they can invest in the capital of a company incorporated and operating in Italy for a minimum amount of one million euros; if the company is an innovative start-up, the amount is lowered to 500 thousand euros. They can also purchase government bonds for a minimum value of at least two million euros. There is also the option for them to make philanthropic donations supporting public interest, cultural, educational or immigration management projects, scientific research or the preservation of cultural and natural heritage.

What is Italy’s diplomatic network doing to promote the visa program, and how can it work with other institutions such as our Chambers of Commerce to increase the awareness of foreigners?

The Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic and consular network is committed, together with other stakeholders in the “Sistema Paese”, to promoting this program abroad. It is good to remember that we developed a specific online platform (investorvisa.mise.gov.it). It is managed by the Ministry of Economic Development and contains all the necessary information to take advantage of this great opportunity. The platform was also presented during specific thematic seminars abroad.

An investor visa program was surely needed to contend with other countries, though it may be changed in its bureaucratic aspects. Are there some features that especially concern your Ministry and that could be improved? 

Of course, the procedure still has margins for improvement, but I would say that, from a procedural standpoint, the system currently in place does not present any particularly critical point. It is a quick and easy procedure. Visa application is carried out in its entirety online, through the portal I mentioned earlier. All subsequent communications pass through it. To this, we can add the fact that the authorization to issue the visa is granted within 30 days if there is no particular impediment. I would also like to remind users that they can contact the Investor Visa Committee Secretariat (operating under the Ministry of Economic Development) which is always ready to give useful info. The Secretariat is also the applicant’s sole interlocutor and coordinates the inter-institutional Committee deputed to issue the permit to obtain the visa. As for the type of investment envisaged by the legislation, thanks to the experience gained in almost two years since the introduction of the law, the new Government is going to evaluate the possibility of revising them to make them more competitive, in line with other European countries.

Do you think that the visa and can boost Italy’s attractiveness for non-EU investors or should other measures be taken to improve the country’s standing as an investment destination?

The Investor Visa is undoubtedly a useful tool to improve Italian appeal to foreign capitals, and by implementing it, Italy aligned itself with other leading European countries that already had similar laws. However, I believe we can improve our country’s position as an investment destination by adopting other measures. We need more incentives, in particular, we need further streamline our bureaucracy and procedures, and we need to be able to ensure that our justice system will be more predictable and time-efficient.