«Mediterranean prospects look good» / INTERVIEW

Alberti (Fedespedi): “Thanks to free trade zones, our transhipment ports could regain their competitiveness”.

WHAT is the situation of Italian shipping companies in the current economic climate?

“The present phase of economic recovery that Italy is undergoing,” replied Fedespedi President Roberto Alberti, “is also positively felt in our business, which, as is well-known, is closely linked to foreign trade. Official data from ISTAT shows that the trade balance in H1 backs up our expectations: exports grew by 7.8% compared to the same period of 2016, while imports increased even more significantly, by 11.8%. This latter figure attests to the greater liveliness of domestic demand, with some degree of recovery in household consumption, and in investments by businesses.”

How does trade with North Africa measure up in the overall Italian shipping business?

“The countries of North Africa, clearly, are going through an extremely difficult historical phase; in some instances, such as Libya, these hardships are still far from being overcome. It is inevitable that trade with Italy, one of their main partners in the Mediterranean, has been affected. In this regard, I’d like to recall that these countries account for about 3% of total Italian trade (exports and imports). Despite this, there are signs that trade is picking up, even with the most problematic countries, such as Libya. However, especially on the export side, it’s going to be a long road before we see a return to normality, and there’s so much that remains to be done.”

How does trade with the Middle East measure up in the overall Italian shipping business?

“Here the situation is very different. Economic relations with the Middle East are of great importance to Italy and are in full swing. Some Middle Eastern countries, for example, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, make up a significant share of our exports. Others, like Iraq, are beginning to emerge on the international market. Iran represents a unique case, it’s been traditionally an important partner for us, with great potential, but the climate of political uncertainty surrounding the decisions that the Trump administration will take on nuclear sanctions casts a dark shadow. Finally, I would like to mention the special situation that is occurring in Qatar, following the crisis with Saudi Arabia. That country is an important logistic hub, and continuing strife there could cause trade traffic to be rerouted.”

Do the freight forwarding firms associated with Fedespedi have a significant presence in these regions?

“Certainly, in the case of large companies, especially multinationals, they have an established presence. As far as smaller shipping companies are concerned, they are present, if they do business in the region, through their correspondent partners.”

What are the prospects in the coming years for trade between Italy and the other Mediterranean countries?

“In part, I have already answered this question. I tend to be optimistic, so I think the prospects are good. But I am also realistic, and I know that much will depend on how the political situation unfolds: if trouble spots can be stabilized, then prospects will be positive, and Italy will play a key role in the development of those countries, to which we are bound by geographical proximity and long-established traditions of economic and cultural exchanges.”

What do you think of the downturn at Italian transhipment ports?

“It’s an extremely complex issue, which does not depend solely on the quality of the services offered by our ports, which are generally good, but from external factors, over which we have little control. I’m referring, for instance, to the strategies of major shipping companies, such as Maersk, MSC, Cosco, or to the growth of direct services on major ports, policies developed by countries such as Morocco, which have built around Tangier Med a free trade zone (FTZ) which has attracted major investments by leading European industrial groups (e.g. Renault). Perhaps we should follow such examples, I’m thinking here of Taranto and Gioia Tauro, but with the caveat that cost levels are completely different. We hope that this goal could be achieved thanks to a recent government measure that favours the creation of FTZs in the south of Italy.»

What other issues do you see coming to the fore?

“Among the hot topics currently on the table is the full and effective implementation of the so-called Sudoco (Single Customs and Inspection Window), and the negotiations for contract renewal, something which also concerns those in the shippers sector.”

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