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‘Here, any business is possible’: the long view from Milan of the EU’s recovery plan

Here, any business is possible,’ says Alessandro Spada, President of Assolombarda. ‘Here, any business is possible,’ repeats a smiling Monica Maggioni, as she introduces a film by John Dickie, an English historian who loves Italy and its companies. ‘Here, any business is possible,’ says EU Commissioner for the Economy Paolo Gentiloni, after speaking about the EU’s recovery fund, the green economy and the digital economy, as well as the investments that need to be made in innovation, education, knowledge, research and new technologies. ‘Here’ is the area in which 13% of Italy’s GDP and 13% of its exports are produced, where the largest number of multinationals in the country are concentrated, and where some of the top universities in the European league tables can be found. ‘Here’ is the industrial heart of European Italy, home to many of the economy’s most cutting-edge sectors, from mechatronics to pharmaceuticals, from cars to chemistry, from rubber to fashion and furnishings – the very best of Made in Italy, widely appreciated in the niches of the world markets that boast the highest added value.

We are in the expansive hangar of Milan’s Linate airport, which, on a cold, sunny Monday, is hosting the annual general meeting of Assolombarda, the largest regional arm of Confindustria, which unites more than seven thousand companies from Milan, Lodi, Pavia, Monza and Brianza. And indeed, the symbolic choice of Linate as a location hints at the fundamental principles of a possible recovery: the strong roots of the metropolis in the regions and the tendency to view the world as a place of exchanges and trade, of relations, of business, and of productive competition between economies and cultures. A world that is very familiar to the companies that Assolombarda is charged with actively interpreting and representing.

Milan, at the crossroads between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, the west and east of the continent. Milan, expanding into the fertile Po valley, with none of the natural defences provided by mountains and rivers; an open city, both in terms of its situation and its outlook. Milan, a round city with no sharp edges or corners. Milan, where the gates of the city walls were once used as toll houses, a clear sign of an economy of relationships. Milan, an inclusive city, shaped by the precepts of Bishop Ambrose, the founder of a special ‘Ambrosian rite’ designed to innovate and overlap with the edict of Bishop Ariberto d’Intimiano, who proclaimed in 1018: ‘Those who know what work is come to Milan. And those who come to Milan are free men.’ Milan the metropolis, considered by the most astute sociologists as a sort of infinite city, part of a network of relationships stretching from Turin and Piedmont to the North-East and industrial Emilia. Milan, a huge land of factories and universities, avant garde centres of life sciences and financial institutions, high-tech services and a culture of international acclaim. Milan, a place capable of struggling through crises –the social tensions surrounding the economic boom, the bombs in Piazza Fontana and the looming shadow of terrorism throughout the decade of the Years of Lead, the moral disaster of the Tangentopoli investigation, the stock market crises and recessions – and still coming out the other side. Milan, a city of many facts and few gimmicks, with a good working culture and a pride that sometimes borders on boastfulness. Milan, always competitive without ever disregarding its true nature as a community founded upon solidarity.

All of these elements are concentrated here, in the hangar at Linate airport. Here, entrepreneurs and representatives from institutions, the world of politics and civil society gather together for the Assolombarda general meeting, an annual ritual that has been held in a variety of locations – once in a large disused factory, another time within the imposing spaces of the Teatro alla Scala – and now in Linate, a symbol of movement, of departures and arrivals, of exchanges that have not yet started again, but which everyone is convinced will begin anew after the Covid-19 pandemic, in a metropolis that has come to terms with its fragility, and now declares its desire to go above and beyond, in order to create a new and better fabric of economic and social relations.

‘Milan close to Europe. Milan at your fingertips. She asks you a question in German and answers you in Sicilian’, sang Lucio Dalla. Precisely –

Europe. This is one of the first points of Spada’s report: ‘Without Europe, we would not be able to take part in the global competition that is playing out on an ever-larger scale, in the spheres of demography, trade, technology. Today, Italy has a number of good reasons to renew its belief in the European project, placing its faith in the turning point that the events of recent months represent. Because a new awareness has emerged among the member states of the EU: that we cannot climb out of a crisis of such unprecedented proportions without shared investments, and without shared responsibilities.’

Speaking to the entrepreneurs of Assolombarda, Gentiloni recalled the decisions made by Brussels, referring to the EU’s Next Generation recovery plan that is founded upon the green economy and the digital economy – or in other words, sustainability and innovation. And in the words of Spada: ‘Compared to the past and the disappointing response to the previous recession, we must acknowledge that this European Commission has really made a change of pace. The past few months have shown us that there is no sense in undermining the European project, or stating that we are outside of it. The only way forwards is to ensure our full involvement. Our industrial future is reliant upon the priorities that the EU has set itself since this summer, with its recovery fund. Infrastructure, digitisation, social safety nets, schooling, health and the green economy are all areas in which investments cannot be delayed. For us and for the country as a whole.’

In essence, ‘The EU we have in mind is not reticent, but rather progresses quickly from plans to action, from good intentions to the capacity to make them a reality. On this path, there is no chasm between us and Brussels, and nor can there be.’ Because ‘we are Europe’.

Talking about the prospects for new generations means insisting on the importance of education: ‘The best social infrastructure‘. Spada emphasises: ‘The relationship between businesses and schools and universities remains one of our greatest priorities. In recent months, we have worked on reinforcing the support of companies in terms of training, particularly in technical colleges, which has included building on the best experience from all over the EU. Technical training is not a second-rate option – on the contrary, it is one of the core areas upon which we must focus in order to relaunch manufacturing, in the name of innovation.’

Young people and women: ‘Focusing on the next generation means liberating the main source of untapped potential in our society once and for all. Namely, women: in work, in careers, in leading management positions. And furthermore, that of young people, who must be at the very heart of our idea of society. We cannot keep our best resources in reserve.’

The leading role played by the metropolis, as the train that drives the entire country’s system (a powerful image used at the general meeting by the President of Confindustria, Carlo Bonomi, formerly of Assolombarda), is founded upon a capacity for research, development and technology transfer that is unique to Italy, and which places Milan at the very top of the pile within Europe: ‘21% of the national total of expenditure both on research and development and on scientific publications is concentrated in Milan. We are leaders in technology transfer: in 2019 alone, 1,493 patents originating in Lombardy were filed with the European Patent Office, 34% of the total in Italy as a whole.’ With the launch of Human Technopole, the presentation of Milan as a candidate to the Unified Patent Court, and the application of Milan and Bergamo to host next year’s global health summit, this region ‘is set to be the shining star of the growing international competition in life sciences.’ Also on the horizon is the establishment of a European Agency for Biomedical Advanced Research and Development, as announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: ‘This is another game we want in on, because we have what it takes to win it.’

Elsewhere, there is another key pillar of Assolombarda’s activity: a corporate culture that is based on legality. This, in essence, means ‘being at the forefront of the battle against the mafia, which is still alarmingly relevant in this day and age.’ Indeed, in the northern regions of the country, from Milan to Brianza, the ‘Ndrangheta first and foremost but also the Camorra and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra have strengthened their grip on the economy, exploiting the current crisis in order to take over businesses, services, public administration bodies and contracts, distorting the market and undermining the function of civil life. On this issue, Spada insists that ‘we must strengthen our commitment, working with all the key players in the social and economic sectors who care about freedom. And we must seek a truly European approach to tackling this issue, because today, organised crime knows no borders.’ And furthermore: ‘We must make our voices heard against the unacceptable phenomena of intimidation, and the violent drift towards business.’ Accordingly, he went on to repeat his support for Marco Bonometti, Giuseppe Pasini and Stefano Scaglia, the presidents of Confindustria Lombardia and the corresponding associations of Brescia and Bergamo, who have been the object of terrorist threats: ‘In the face of threats, no entrepreneur in Lombardy must feel alone.’

There is another theme causing alarm among entrepreneurs: the ‘cost of doing nothing’. Inefficient bureaucracies, blocks on productive public spending, the halting of public works, and the slow-down of productivity and competitiveness. The answer? ‘No more emergency logic: we need structural solutions.’ These must be based on three priorities, three clear choices: first of all, ‘we need to implement radical change to a bureaucracy that hinders the competitiveness of businesses and the development of the region; it is a thorn in the side of action. The Genoa model, which enabled the collapsed bridge to be rebuilt in just over a year (as opposed to ten), must become the norm.

The second priority? ‘Industry 4.0. When something works, it must be supported and strengthened. And today, Industry 4.0 must be restored to its former role as a “disruptive” measure that serves to accelerate the change that companies must face: not only the purchase of new machinery and more advanced technologies, but also the transformation of business, production and management processes.’

The third priority focuses on the goal for the coming years: ‘We cannot miss out on this great EU opportunity: 209 billion euros to relaunch our region and the entire country. 209 billion euros to demonstrate that Italy can leave an era of “doing nothing” behind. This is our chance. Let’s not waste it.’ The Milanese and Lombard organisation thus reiterates its idea of what the market and open society should look like: an active region characterised by fair trade, manufacturing and commercial transactions carried out within the context of a sustainable Italy and EU, both from an environmental perspective and from a social point of view. A worthy enterprise that is infinitely possible, then.