Given the preoccupation of Italy with its budgetary tussles with the European Union, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was in India on a short visit – effectively just 30th October; but his hours spent in New Delhi were full of substance.
Conte held a one to one meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a call on by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and addressed the valedictory Session of the 24th version of the Technology Summit, jointly organized by the Confederation of Indian Industries, the Department of Science and technology of India and the Italian Embassy in New Delhi since Italy was the partner country this year.
Prime Minister Conte was accompanied by a 60-member delegation. The technology Summit immensely benefits the Indian industry and academic and research institutions in entering into global partnerships, and facilitates private sector investment in research, and technology.
This edition of the Summit focused on 7 areas, viz 'Cleantech', renewables, ICT, healthcare, Aerospace, education and Cultural heritage. Several Italian and Indian experts addressed the Summit on varied topics including astrophysics, gravitational waves, mobile networks, IOT (Internet of Things), e-infrastructure and bio- robotics, among others.
The visit to India was PM Conte’s first to any Asian country. Since assuming office, Conte has travelled to Canada for the G7 Summit, to France and Germany to discuss the immigration crisis, to the United States at the invitation of President Trump, and to Austria for a meeting of the European Commission. He was also in Moscow on 24th October.
The visit of PM Conte came exactly a year after former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni visited India on 30th October 2017. India and Italy celebrated 70 years of their diplomatic relations in 2018, and bilateral relations have maintained a steady momentum. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was in Italy in June 2018. She was the first non-European leader to call on Prime Minister Conte. She also met with Foreign Minister Moravero Milanesi and agreed to maintain the momentum generated by PM Gentiloni’s visit.
Lately, Italy has closely collaborated with India in the multilateral arena, and was fully behind India’s election to the International Court of Justice, and its admission to the Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia group – both important nonproliferation groups of likemindedcountries for preventing the proliferation small arms and chemical and biological weapons respectively.
2018 was a successful year for revival of mechanisms for defence cooperation: a high-level meeting of the Joint Defence Committee was held in May and the Military Cooperation Group met in October which resulted in the bilateral cooperation plan for the year 2019. Italy organized a High-level design forum in India in April 2018. Italian ministers of Health and Agriculture also came calling in India, and signed MOUs in their respective sectors with their counterparts. Italy was a partner country at the 'World Food India 2017' and participated as a partner country in the first edition of 'Videocitta', an exhibition related to the audio – visual entertainment industry. A goodwill delegation of Indian parliamentarians led by Minister of State Arjun Ram Meghwal was in Italy from 15-17 October 2018.
India is Italy’s fifth largest trading partner in the EU while Italy is the fifth largest investor in India. The bilateral trade between the two countries reached $10.5 billion in 2017, up from $8.8 billion in the previous year. The presence of over 600 Italian companies in India is an important link and Indian companies are also investing in, and acquiring companies in Italy.
The joint statement issued during the visit was forward looking, and has provided a positive direction to bilateral ties. India and Italy agreed to expand cooperation in areas of defence, trade, energy and infrastructure and condemned those countries providing safe havens to terror groups and supporting cross border terrorism. In an oblique reference to China, it was underlined that connectivity projects should be based on internationally recognized standards and norms, rule of law, and inclusiveness. Italy reiterated its support to “India’s intensified engagement” with the Nuclear Suppliers group (NSG) which falls short of full support.
It is notable that in the wake of the crisis on the marines issue which lasted from 2012-16, and cast a shadow on burgeoning bilateral ties, Italy had also not initially supported India’s admission to the Missile Technology Control Regime, but changed its stance once there were signs of a thaw leading to the two sides agreeing to transfer the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Both sides have also recognized the need for broad base defence ties and make them “enduring and mutually beneficial”, and India invited Italian defence equipment manufacturing firms to invest and to collaborate with Indian firms for construction of defence equipment. On his part, PM Conte pointed out in a written interview to India Today TV before the visit that Augusta Westland helicopter sales to India which had a fall out on defence ties between the two countries, had been already investigated in Italy and the former CEOs of Leonardo Defence (formerly Finmeccanica) had been acquitted by the judiciary in Italy.
Augusta Westland, which supplied the 12 VVIP helicopters to the Indian Air Force in 2006, was a subsidiary of Finmeccanica and the company has since been reorganized several times. He also pointed out that the new company Leonardo has joined the United Nations Global Compact, which is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. He went on to state that when it comes to “the defence industry and procurement, Italian companies have developed an outstanding expertise, which can contribute significantly to the ‘Make in India’ programme”.
Shipbuilding, underwater systems including torpedoes, helicopters, radars, communication systems, electronics and high-altitude equipment and gear are all areas of possible collaboration.
Prime Minister Modi praised Italy’s role in space technology. The Business and industries of both countries he said, were already cooperating in bringing cutting edge technologies to various sectors and could cooperate further in areas like renewable energy, neurosciences and Information Technology.
“Italy is self-sufficient when it comes to technology, which is what gives us the confidence that we can partner with Italy to face global challenges with the help of technology” PM Modi said while addressing the technology forum. He also pointed out that both sides agreed to boost ties in key sectors such as lifestyle accessories design, with special focus on the leather sector, and transportation and automobile design, energy, and life sciences. The two Prime Ministers explored the potential for a new partnership in the area of railways and re relaunched cooperation in development of renewable energy, which is an area of focus in India. PM Conte pointed out that Italy had the highest number of UNESCO sites, and has used innovation technology for conservation of monuments.Italy, he said, will be happy to share its experience with India in this area.
The two countries have set up a Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation under which a CEO forum will also be established. The joint Commission itself will be reconvened in India in 2019. They also agreed to establish a fast track mechanism to increase the two-way investments and remove hurdles in trade. The joint Statement recognized the vast business opportunities in the food processing sector in India and Italy was urged to look at investments in the entire food processing value chain particularlyin food processing units, equipment manufacture, skill development, research and development and quality assurance.
A working group on food processing has been set up and will be convened soon. An Indo-Italian chamber of commerce has been set up under the aegis of the Italian embassy in new Delhi. One of the offshoots of this initiative is the setting up of an educational and vocational training hub in Mumbai called Minerva which will provide international standard education vocational training for Indian students for placement in higher education and vocational training courses in Italy and India and support Indianstudents to get internships and placements in Indian and Italian companies.
A new session of the working group on renewable energy will be convened in Rome in 2019. India has offered to host the joint working group on terrorism in new Delhi in 2019.
The joint statement acknowledges the immense potential for bilateral cooperation in the railway sector particularly in the areas of safety, diagnostics, technology certification and capacity building. Indian and Italian companies will explore infrastructure opportunities, particularly in the construction of roads, bridges, ports, subways etc. The leaders encouraged Indian and Italian companies to explore partnerships under the PPP mode. For this, it has been agreed to foster contacts between Italy’s Casa Depositi ePrestiti (CDP) and India’s national Infrastructure Investment Fund (NIIF) and to explore setting up of Indo Italian joint ventures.
There is along-standing collaboration in science and technology involving some of the best scientific and academic institutions from the two countries in areas like Micro Electro mechanical Systems (MEMS), Cognitive Neuroscience, Information and Communication technologies, Environmental Sciences, Materials Sciences, Renewable Energy and protection of cultural heritage. The Indo Italian joint Science and Technology Committee is facilitating the establishment of Indo Italian centres of Excellence in selected areas of mutual strength such as cultural heritage preservation, renewable energy, life sciences, and geohazards.
The next phase of the bilateralIndia Italy Industrial research and development Cooperation programe will enable industries, enterprises and research institutions of both countries to partner seamlessly in co-developing new products in areas covering advanced materials, smart manufacturing, clean and green technologies and technologies for cultural heritage. An important area of convergence was the G 20 agenda, where both countries are supposed to assume Presidencies in the near future and have agreed to coordinate their efforts to make their respective Presidencies “productive and enduring’. Transparency and integrity of public and private sector was sought to be promoted through practical international cooperation, and technical assistance, and the two sides agreed to continue to fully implement G20 anti-corruption mandates.
Prime Minister Conte’s right-wing populist government faces strong head winds. The Italian government is at loggerheads with the EU on a budget which is considered above limits on spending, and does not conform to EU norms. Italy wants more EU funds to be allocated to the issues of migration since it sees itself as a front-line state and target of organized immigrant flows. Italy faces a dwindling population and rising unemployment. The banking system is showing signs of weakness.
On the bilateral front, however, India and Italy share democratic values, historical links, preponderance of small and medium enterprises in their economies and their convergent thinking on global issues like terrorism, climate change and radicalism ensure a strong bond.
The Indian community which is nearly 190,000 strong and is deeply enmeshed in the cheese, dairy, floriculture and wine industry in Italy is an important link. Although Leonardo, the successor of Finmeccanica is no longer a company under trial in Italian courts, India has not closed these investigations, and its request for due cooperation from Italian authorities for evidence, and extradition of middlemen Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa for implementing charge sheets filed in India are still pending. Both sides still claim jurisdiction to try the Italian marines who had shot two fishermen off the Kerala coast in February 2012, but the issue is now in the realm of the Permanent court of Arbitration, in The Hague, and will come up for consideration in February 2019. Given the fact that this is no longer a bilateral issue will help both sides in keeping it away from bilateral ties which are once again on the cusp of a take off, if handled carefully.
Anil Wadhwa was Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian Ambassador to Italy from 2016-17. Currently, he is a Senior fellow with the Vivekananda international Foundation. Views expressed here are personal.