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Building a new silk road: Sicily’s role

Palermo, 30/09/2018 - 01/10/2018, National Conference

Kicking off discussions at this National Conference was the observation that southern Italy’s ports, intermodal facilities, and adjacent hinterland areas have a strategic opportunity within their grasp, with Mediterranean routes now serving as crossroads for global traffic. It was felt, however, that in order to seize these opportunities, medium and long-term choices need to be made, with a commitment at the governmental level to ensure that the right incentives, an apposite regulatory framework, and a coherent vision for pursuing Italy’s economic interests are all in place. It would not be sufficient alone to exploit the advantageous geographical position of Italy’s south, or of Sicily in particular; rather, connectivity with production hubs and markets will need to be enhanced.

It was noted that this through traffic, and investment in port infrastructure, have received a particular boost in recent years from China, with its growing role in transport and logistics – a role which, however, relies on manufacturing capacity and, hence, on being assured of constant high-volume flows of goods. The "One Belt One Road Initiative", or "Belt & Road Initiative" (BRI), which has been heavily promoted by the Beijing government, is a project whose scale remains ill-defined. It effectively comprises a large network of routes that are gradually being developed and which span many countries, from Asia to Europe. These “silk roads” (plural) are much more than modern evocations of the past, given the heavy integration of global production chains, including digital ones. It should not be forgotten that the European continent remains an area with world-leading technological capabilities, as well as being an area of transit and a major market. On the other hand, the global landscape is changing profoundly, with Asia’s growing importance and new technological and political balances emerging that will eventually transform the very rules of the game, of which the trade tensions of recent months are also indicative.

The participants acknowledged that given the scale and geopolitical implications of the BRI, the initiative is raising some concerns that are in part justified, even though what is proposed has great potential. This explains the strong interest expressed by Italy, and above all its southern regions, in being actively involved in the project, which is currently only the case to a limited extent, given China’s choice to focus on the port of Piraeus and the Adriatic route to Central Europe, and on Spain and North Africa as a means to accessing Atlantic routes.

Yet although the Mediterranean serves as a key hub, it poses serious challenges for Europe’s capacity to plan coordinated responses that simultaneously take into account the peculiarities of the region as well as competitive factors linked with north and northeastern Europe. The doubling of the Suez Canal (2015), in particular, has strengthened the potential of the southern route from Asia and from the Gulf to Europe.

Adding to this traffic from trade are tourist flows. Indeed, China has the largest cohort of tourists in the world today. In this regard, several participants emphasized that Italy – once again, as an economic system pulling together – must organize itself quickly in order to more effectively manage relations with its Chinese counterparts.

Sicily has a clear geographic advantage vis-à-vis Mediterranean routes, yet to date is does not have a "port hub" with an attached dry port suited to the requirements of modern flows, which involve mega-ships and the need to shunt goods using smaller ships in addition to via land transport. It was suggested that instead of thinking in terms of individual ports (Palermo/Termini Imerese, Catania, and so on), the approach should hinge on the integrated management of the region’s infrastructure and localities to facilitate the handling of large flows. Ensuring synergies between the region’s different local areas would be a first crucial step towards benefiting from the major international corridors. This would allow unique local specialities to also be developed as production strengths. In this respect, particular attention was drawn to Sicily’s high-quality agricultural produce and fishing, in addition, naturally, to its tourism industry.

It was felt that the same applies across the country, as regards enhancing both production capacity and connectivity: Taranto, Gioia Tauro, and Naples are also hubs and connectors between Italy and Europe, as well as between Asia and the MENA region. For their part, the country’s northern ports – namely, Genoa, Trieste, and Venice – are clearly important from an integrated system perspective, especially vis-à-vis central and northern Europe. However, in all these cases, efficient connections are necessary, especially high-capacity rail links. It was stressed that this also needs to be considered in the light of Italy’s clout as the second-largest manufacturing country in Europe, which increases the potential value of its hubs.

Since 2017, it has been possible to create Special Economic Zones (SEZs) around ports (with two such already established). It was urged that this option could be better pursued if both the public and private sectors were both involved. A feasibility study is currently underway for the construction of an international airport, which would complement efforts in the port and road and rail transport sectors. These are local initiatives with a potentially significant national and international impact. With these important local developments emerging, a number of participants were of the view that there is also a key role that only the EU can play, especially as regards China and the MENA region. Indeed, it is clear that negotiating with Chinese companies (and, hence, also authorities) is always a complex task, such that a greater critical mass is often crucial.

Several participants pointed out that sustainability and the adoption of clean technologies are key aspects in the creation of new infrastructure, which should be premised on eco-friendly planning and the precepts of the circular economy.

The northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean were viewed as having complementary qualities. As such, there was a perceived need to further strengthen their ties, so as to form a single geo-economic whole with the rest of the African continent. It was acknowledged in this regard that the Chinese presence is also prompting Europe to adopt a broader and more forward-looking vision of its interests. This could be where Sicily has a specific role to play, thanks in part to its history of cultural acuity.

Lastly, it was stressed that Palermo, in particular, has undergone a veritable cultural revival in recent years, which could serve as a starting point for greater openness towards the rest of the country and the international scene. The next step now is to move on to developing the capacity for more effective action and decision-making.