Claudio Giacomelli, Trieste and the battle for the free-trade zone

The free-trade, and the possibility not only to further strengthen the logistic infrastructure and the unloading and loading of goods in the port of Trieste, but also to transform them through processing, and therefore to add value to those same goods for a subsequent shipment to other non-European countries; all this in an extra-customs system that, legally speaking, has long been due to Trieste.
A very important keystone for the development of Friuli Venezia Giulia. But, after decades of waiting, and the initial euphoria of a few years ago that was followed by a change of pace, nothing is moving; and the port of Trieste is still awaiting the implementation of the extra-customs.
After the recent hearing in the Regional Council of Friuli Venezia Giulia, we talk about this with the group leader of Fratelli d’Italia, Claudio Giacomelli.

Giacomelli, your statement in the Regional Council, on which you, with Fratelli d’Italia, have worked a lot, wanted to be highly transversal. A political signal to the Government?
“Yes. We wanted to focus the hearing on the extra-customs of the free port of Trieste on manufacturing. After writing it, and before depositing it, we spoke with all the political groups present in the Regional Council: from the Democratic Party to Forza Italia, from the 5-Star Movement to the Lega, also asking for the involvement of the autonomist movements. We worked so that all the majority and opposition groups would sign the request for convocation; I don’t remember many other cases where this happened”.

Why transversality instead of just an action by Fratelli D’Italia?
“We were interested, first, that the hearing did not have a mark or a political imprint. I must say with sincerity that there was great interest and participation. I was very pleased to find a transversal response also in terms of territoriality: in the Regional Council we talk about Trieste as a port of Friuli Venezia Giulia, involving Confindustria Udine and Pordenone. And the real possibilities for development that the Region has with Trieste as its port are now fully understood and shared: the whole region is united in this battle”.

Is this a change of pace compared to the past, and the overcoming of local rivalries?
“It may be the beginning of that common thinking, at regional level, which for Friuli Venezia Giulia is fundamental to hold the competition. We have very difficult challenges ahead of us: transport, an autonomous Veneto that is enormously larger than us both economically and demographically, and therefore politically. Finding ourselves caught between an autonomous Veneto, and Austria and Slovenia, which are much more competitive from a fiscal point of view, could make us the weakest link in the chain. We must exploit all the opportunities that come from our history and from a fully justified autonomy”.

Your first request to discuss the port of Trieste in the Regional Council had arrived only a few days before the issue of the Anac resolution on Zeno D’Agostino.
“Yes, we had done so before the ‘a posteriori’ revocation of Zeno D’Agostino; then, in agreement among all the groups, we decided, although Mario Sommariva is an equal authority on the matter, to wait for the return of D’Agostino himself”.

Is the situation of D’Agostino’s presidency definitively resolved?
“We believe so. We have not heard of any appeal to the State Council. We have intervened in support of D’Agostino; and now D’Agostino is continuing with great professionalism in his commitment, also at international level, and certainly does not need our help in this”.

D’Agostino’s revocation stirred up the public opinion in the entire city; this too was a case with few precedents.
“The fact is that Trieste is very attentive to its port. But there is also a question mark that, beyond the workers of the port and the individual companies involved, and of course the large economic contribution made by the taxation of the port itself, remains: Trieste is a port that is growing very well, but how much can it open its economic possibilities to the rest of the city”?

What does it have to do this?

“Let’s remember that in all the ports in the world, not only in Trieste, automation is becoming more and more established in container loading and unloading operations: there is no longer the man, but the robot, or rather where before there were ten men, one is now enough. And automation, with the change in working methods that it entails, leads to questions over the future of employment. Given the areas that are available and the others that are being freed up, and given the extraordinary possibilities brought by the extra-customs, the fact of attracting new manufacturing companies to the port of Trieste itself – or even: attracting back Italian companies that are currently manufacturing abroad but that are now thinking about coming back, even following the health emergency that has occurred – is an opportunity that we cannot miss”.

Is it possible, for Italy, to do it in a convenient way? By keeping costs down?
“Of course, for the manufacturing industry, regardless of the advantages of extra-customs, Italy will never be strictly competitive on labour costs. However, we can think about a finished product and a potential ‘made in Italy’ which is a guarantee of professionalism and quality. And innovation. It is a strong way to attract not only international investors, who are at the window waiting for the situation to unblock – we are convinced of this – but also to develop a Trieste and regional economy, today and in the future, that is not strictly related to the port in the strict sense. It opens up considerable economic and employment opportunities. And it is after all the great signal that Zeno D’Agostino himself has been giving for some time”.

What really emerged from the hearing? Why is nothing moving, is the government’s attention missing?
“I must acknowledge the Minister for Economic Development, Stefano Patuanelli, for having worked hard. Beyond illustrating the advantages of the port’s extra customs duties, one very important thing that emerged from the hearing is who is what we can call ‘the opponent’. And the opponent of the port of Trieste is the legislative department of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. We must take note that despite the commitment on extra customs duties for Trieste of all parties in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region and also of a minister, and of the deputies of the parties that govern this government, we are still getting nowhere”.

How do you experience this situation?
I call it disturbing. It’s the feeling that left me with the audition. One wonders where they are, and what they are, the real blockades and the reasons for their immobility. Surely Zeno D’Agostino has openly and publicly indicated them”.

So, one can no longer even speak of a political issue, but rather of a bureaucratic impasse?
“We are faced with something and someone who opposes, from Rome, the extra-customs of the port of Trieste in a strong way. And the big question we must always ask ourselves is: how are the other Italian ports moving? They look with distrust at the possibilities of Trieste“.

Italian ports that work against Trieste’?
“That’s one of the problems. However, in the midst of the Covid-19 health emergency, the Slovenian government approved a law to halve the port tariffs of the port of Koper, with a time window extended until September this year and extendable.
And in the Slovenian media and press there has been open talk about the problem of strong competition in the port of Trieste. It is clear that, from this point of view, the Italian internal resistance in Trieste is not constructive for the country. Not wanting to treat Trieste in a particular way, but preferring the balance between all the national ports, means that we are not moving.

And if nothing moves, Trieste cannot exploit its opportunities. And yet, extra-customs for Trieste is not something new, but the demand for recognition of a right that derives directly from Annex VIII of the Peace Treaty. What happens is that Italy has not included Trieste in the communication of non-customs zones. If until six months ago we were talking about legislative changes, today we are talking about a simple communication. But someone has to do it. That is precisely why we have chosen not the path of a letter from President Massimiliano Fedriga, but a motion shared and signed by all the political groups. Through this motion, President Fedriga will then have a strong and transversal instrument among all the parties to be able to continue his action. After that, the current government must listen”.

A position of Fratelli D’Italia that recalls the Second World War in Trieste and the Free Territory is also almost unprecedented.
“Sometimes it’s strange to see Fratelli D’Italia talking about Annex VIII, World War II and then the free port; yes. Someone even smiled about it. For us, however, there are no taboos. It is a current norm: for us, Triestine independence is certainly not the key point. There is no doubt that extra customs is a right that Trieste has, internationally recognised; just as there is no doubt about Italian sovereignty over the port of Trieste itself”.

You have been very close and paid attention to the problem represented by a possible subordination of Trieste’s customs to those of Venice.
“Let’s see how it will end, because this is also an important point. Let’s keep in mind that this is not only a question of management or protection of about twenty workers: there are companies that have daily dialogues with customs. If these companies are forced to interface, in person, with the customs in Venice, sooner or later it becomes justified to open an office in Venice. Moreover, and this is linked to the issue of extra customs, it takes a high degree of specialisation. This is something we have in Trieste“.

The port cannot absorb all the workers leaving from other realities, such as that of Ferriera di Servola; this has already been clarified.
“The port has already given a lot of support; however, it cannot be the only solution to the great industrial and employment crises in the Venezia Giulia area. And as we have said, automation will erode yet another part of jobs: it happens in all the world’s ports. Manufacturing therefore remains a part of the solution: we do not yet know what the post-Covid world will be like, but we see manufacturing under the extra-customs regime in Trieste as a possibility. Fundamental for employment. It is necessary to keep the value of our businesses high, and to extend the benefits of the port to the whole city as soon as possible. There are some very interesting aspects in Trieste also in terms of the storage of goods, such as free-trade VAT and cash advances, which involve the whole of Friuli Venezia Giulia. I’m thinking of the manufacturing in Friuli, I’m thinking of that of Pordenone but not only”.

Are there any high hopes?
“We have to be concrete and ready: there is a minimum of optimism. Also thinking about next year’s local elections: Trieste is an important city. And it can also make use of its international partners to try to unblock what has been stationary for too long”.

In what way?
“Let me explain: for the port of Trieste there has been a lot of talk in recent months about China and the New Silk Road – and on this, Fratelli D’Italia has taken an unorthodox position in Trieste, but to date there is still no Chinese money and investment, we talk about the future and possibilities. Instead, there are very strong interests and concrete investments from central Europe: in particular Hungary and Germany. If the road to Rome, despite the agreement of all parties in Friuli Venezia Giulia, should not work, I believe that valid allies in Europe could be the Hungarian and German governments”.

A return to Trieste’s historical past?
“I’m not of this opinion. It should be seen as a novelty, not only as a return to the port of Trieste of the Hapsburgs, which was already experiencing a beginning of crisis before the First World War. It is a new Trieste, not a Trieste of the Empire”.

The Hungarian government, however, is cited almost every week as an example not to be followed in terms of democracy.
“It is the government of Victor Orbán, and it is a Visegrad country: there is therefore a strong comparison with the other political personalities that make up the European Union. The Hungarian domestic political situation is used like a hammer by the centre-left, and becomes an instrument of Italian domestic politics. However, I would like to remind you that we have an already extraordinarily interesting trade balance with Hungary, that Hungarian investments in the port of Trieste are a reality and not a hypothesis, and that after Austria and Germany most tourists in Friuli Venezia Giulia come from Hungary. Then come the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and after them, the Netherlands and Poland, another a Visegrad country”.

You really can’t tell me a name of a potential mayor candidate of Fratelli d’Italia in the next municipal elections?
“No, because we’re sticking to the position already expressed, we won’t start talking about mayor until October. The moment is very difficult, today we are focusing on other issues, especially the economic emergency that follows the health emergency. We have never said that we do not want Roberto Dipiazza as mayor candidate: until October, however, we do not want to talk about it. Today Trieste needs a mayor much more than a mayor candidate”.

Your political commitments for the next few weeks?
“Now we focus on the port’s extra customs, logistics and customs: they are the battle. The battle of the port is much more effective if it is a cross-cutting battle shared by all political forces, not just the centre-right. And we want to continue this way”.

What about tourism after the pandemic? Will it recover?
“On tourism in Friuli Venezia Giulia, today we have to work a lot. And wait”.

Fratelli D’Italia is still growing in surveys, with a doubling compared to just a few years ago. Would you have imagined it, in the days of the congress in Trieste in 2017?
“I’m naturally happy about it, and I saw the Corriere della Sera poll too. Fratelli D’Italia makes concrete proposals and wants to do good administration. What worries us, and Giorgia Meloni said it wonderfully, is that we have no intention of being used. The press tends to use polls on Fratelli D’Italia, especially those that show a growth in preferences, as a lever to create friction within the center-right. Exactly as was done with Matteo Salvini against Berlusconi. Therefore, we are not talking about a centre-left that is in decline, or government parties in difficulty, but we are talking about the data of Fratelli D’Italia in opposition to the Lega or Forza Italia, in a sort of internal competition in which the allies now in opposition should beware of Fratelli D’Italia and not of the 5 Star Movement or the Democratic Party. It is not so”.

But would you have imagined it, a doubling? In just three years?
“I joined the Fratelli D’Italia when the party had 1.7%, and many people called me crazy. It was instead a choice of heart. I expected that, sooner or later, there would be an explosion of preferences: Giorgia Meloni‘s approach to big issues, the work she does, her consistency, the fact of putting the problems of the Italians in the foreground. All this, sooner or later would have led to success. It happened today, and it is a very interesting moment, when the economic concerns are enormous. The growth of Fratelli D’Italia is real, precisely because it is not only ideological. Italians realize that they have, in one of the worst moments of their history, certainly two things: that they have the worst government in history, and the reliability of the Fratelli D’Italia and Giorgia Meloni”.

[m.g translation]