Most ambassadorial visits to Georgia come with a sales pitch about the advantages of their country.
But for Italian Ambassador Armando Varicchio, spending Monday in Atlanta was mainly about building on a strong nucleus of Italian companies here, boosting their competitiveness globally by having an even greater presence locally.
“Our idea is not just to promote trade exchanges but to invite Italian companies to invest here. They bring technology, they bring jobs. This is happening in many parts of the country; I see Georgia having all the same potential and opportunity,” he said at Miller & Martin PLLC just before meeting with local Italian executives.
Italy may be known more for its arts, culture and food, but it’s also a powerhouse in manufacturing and design, boasting the technical expertise to match.
“First and foremost, Italy is a country of engineers. This is what we do best. This is why we are the second largest manufacturer in Europe, far ahead of France, the U.K. and any other country. Wherever in the states you have strong industrial plants, there you have Italian companies,” said Mr. Varicchio, who spent the morning visiting Georgia Tech before meeting with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
Mr. Varicchio, whose deputy prime minister will visit Wall Street this week, is also planning a high-level delegation to Atlanta later this year. He mentioned to Mr. Kemp that Georgia likewise should consider taking a trade mission to Italy.
While Italian auto sector is well known, with the Italian ownership of Fiat-Chrysler and high-end brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini, the ambassador noted that Italian suppliers help underpin the quality of other European brands as well.
“There is no German car which doesn’t have a strong component of Italian parts,” he told Global Atlanta in an interview.
Food packaging and processing, an area where Italian investment in Georgia stands out through companies like Cavanna and TSW America, is a big part of its agricultural growth story, he said.
“We are strong exporters of food products, but where much of the added value is, where we do our real business is in the supply chain, in manufacturing, in food processing,” he said.
Both of those sectors, however, have made the country vulnerable to U.S. tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. The ambassador called that a “concern” in the bilateral relationship, but noted that U.S.-Italy trade is on the upswing and landed at nearly $80 billion last year. Trade negotiations, meanwhile, are handled by the European Union, not its individual member states. The ambassador hopes after European parliamentary elections in May and the forming of the new European Commission this fall will lead to a breakthrough in U.S. talks.
Still, the world’s ninth-largest economy has received little attention from Georgia relative to other European powerhouses. Georgia’s foreign investment office for Europe is based in Munich, Germany. An Italian Trade Commission office that once operated in Atlanta shut down a few years back amid budget cuts, and Italy remains the only G7 nation with no career consulate in Atlanta.
Italy is represented in Atlanta by Ryan Kurtz, the nation’s honorary consul, who organized the ambassador’s visit. The country remains a premier destination for Georgia students, with universities here maintaining a vast array of exchanges with the culture-rich country.
One reason for the ambassador’s visit was a new exhibition on Renaissance-era marriage chests at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, which is partnering with Florence’s Museo Stibbert on the exchange of 45 artifacts.
Beyond the arts, the Italian embassy in Washington has three professors on staff tasked with fostering research exchanges on biotechnology, physics and innovation, the ambassador said.
Investing in Italy, China Challenges
Italy must capitalize on its “soft power,” said Mr. Varicchio, acknowledging that the perceived lack of political stability has been a headwind for investment recruitment. The current prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, took over last June as a compromise between two euroskeptic parties that control the government. The law professor and political novice has said he has no plans to continue for a second term.
The country has also butted heads with the European Union, which last October took the unprecedented step of blocking its government budget over debt concerns.
More recently, Italy has spent time explaining why $2.8 billion of deals signed this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping should not worry the U.S., which is locked in a trade war with China that carries technological undertones. The U.S. has urged its European partners to shun Chinese telecom giant Huawei when it comes to 5G mobile networks or face “consequences” on intelligence sharing.
Mr. Varicchio said the deals in ports, railways, energy, financial services and other sectors are part of Italy’s desire to win its share of China’s growing investment in Europe.
“Instead of simply sitting and waiting for Chinese companies to come with cash and buy companies or build infrastructure, we wanted to give a sort of framework. It’s not an international treaty, so it’s not a binding document, but it is a political framework whereby for the first time we have China abiding to a number of principles which are our principles — in terms of having a level playing field, respect for international obligations, protecting intellectual property.”
Though Italy-China relations go back to the days of Marco Polo in the 14th century, Mr. Varicchio added that that the transatlantic relationship shouldn’t be devalued even as both sides focus on China. A coordinated approach between the U.S. and Europe is necessary, he said.
“As always with China, what we have to do — and the more we’re doing it together the better — is not just having China signing documents, but having China abiding to what they sign, and no country in the world can do that alone.”