Ambassador Giuseppina Zarra: Bulgaria is an Attractive Destination for Italian Companies #AmbassadorTalks
“Bulgaria had a great role in my life”
It is a great honor to have the Ambassador of Italy H.E. Giuseppina Zarra as a guest in our series of interviews Ambassador Talks.
Find out: At what level are trade relations between Bulgaria and Italy and why people from the two countries prefer to work with each other? What is Italy’s role in the strategic defense of Bulgaria and the Balkan region? Is the business environment in Bulgaria favorable for Italian entrepreneurs? And why is our country so special for Mrs. Zarra?
1. What is your opinion on the bilateral political and business relations between Bulgaria and your country?
Historically, Italy and Bulgaria are strictly linked by long-lasting friendship and close relations. Moreover, in the last 25 years, especially after the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union and NATO, the linkages between the two Countries have developed and deepened even more. Today Italy is the fourth commercial partner for Bulgaria worldwide and Bulgaria represents the third trade partner for Italy in the Balkan Peninsula after Romania and Greece. In Bulgaria, operate nearly 12.000 mixed Italian companies, which provide work to around 50.000 families.
Also from the cultural point of view, our relations have increased over the years: as an example today, we count around 28.000 Bulgarian students who are enrolled in Italian language classes around the Country. The Italian language indeed is taught not only in six Bulgarian schools and 3 Universities around the Country, but also in various courses offered by the Italian Institute of Culture in Sofia and by many private language schools. The Italian Culture Institute in Sofia moreover organizes cultural events and initiatives in many fields involving not only the capital Sofia but also many other important centers in the Country, like Plovdiv, Varna, Ruse and Bansko.
From a political perspective, the relevant contribution of Italy as framework nation to the new NATO Battlegroup established in Bulgaria testifies the great importance that Italy gives to the security and stability of the Balkan Peninsula and the Black Sea as part of the enlarged stability of the south-eastern part of the European Union. Furthermore, with the Italian assumption of the role of Framework Nation of the Battlegroup, the political relation between Italy and Bulgaria will raise to a new strategic level.
2. What kind of improvement of these relations do you see in the near future and also long term?
Given the immediate threat to European stability and security due to the unjustified Russian military invasion of Ukraine, the matters regarding security of the NATO Easter flank and the Black Sea area are at the center of our political agenda: Italy clearly shows that it is ready to support Bulgaria and the other Balkan Countries in their joint efforts to enhance their defensive capabilities.
From the commercial point of view, we consider that our longstanding and optimal relations may improve with an even stronger presence of Italian companies and investments in Bulgaria, in particular referring to the strategic sectors of energy, IT, infrastructures and connectivity, and defense industry.
3. In your humble opinion, what is the place of Bulgaria in the modern world?
Bulgaria is a member of NATO and of the European Union and as a steady ally and member, it can greatly contribute to the goals and achievements we decide all together: the direction taken is firmly stated in Treaties that Bulgaria has signed and in the commitments taken by the Bulgarian Governments during the years.
In the coming years Bulgaria, together with other EU members will be called to address crucial challenges and difficult internal reforms in order to complete its integration path for the adoption of the Euro, for joining the Schengen area and the OECD.
As NATO Ally and UN member, as well as for its strategic position in the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria can greatly contribute to the stability of the region and to the stability of the Black sea.
4. If you want to promote Bulgaria to investors from your country, what would be the 5 most important advantages you would mention?
Indeed many Italian companies are interested in better knowing the Bulgarian market and business climate. This is the same for Italian Companies investing abroad as for Italian Companies that are now trying to move their investments closer to the EU in the so-called “nearshoring” process.
I always underline the geographical strategic position of Bulgaria. Like a bridge between Europe and Asia, the southeast Mediterranean and Central Europe, with two harbors on the Black Sea, Bulgaria has indeed a valuable position along the global trade routes. Connectivity is key to regional developments and will be the main challenge for Bulgaria and the neighboring Countries in the next future in order to integrate the region with the main EU corridors.
Another factor that is of great importance to Italian companies is the membership of Bulgaria to the EU. For this reason, indeed, Italian companies feel safer doing their business in Bulgaria because of the integrated market, common rules, fiscal regimes and standards.
Moreover, the business environment in Bulgaria is particularly favorable to new foreign investments. With a cheaper labor cost compared to the Italian one and lower taxation, Bulgaria still represents an attractive destination for Italian companies.
Finally, the cultural proximity between Italian and Bulgarian people makes it easier to do business together. The histories of our Countries are indeed full of reciprocal influences and unexpected connections. Our cultural closeness makes it easier to live and work together and to find common solutions for the growth of both Countries.
5. Do you think Bulgaria can improve its image or branding and if yes - do you have an idea or advice you could share with us?
In my opinion, Bulgaria has already a good set of tools to further improve its image and brand on the international stage. Talking about Bulgaria with my friends and relatives back in Italy what struck me is that they do not have a bad perception of Bulgaria; the problem is that they barely know something about your beautiful Country. Bulgaria today is like a hidden treasure in the middle of the Balkans. If we only think of integrated tourist routes, the richness of thermal resorts, the archaeological and historical heritage, I am convinced that Bulgaria can become a first-class touristic destination.
Indeed your Country has plenty of artistic and natural treasures, which are only waiting to be visited and discovered by the world and has great opportunities for business in the agro-food industry that has always been a very strong asset, manufacturing, digital services, clean energy production and export.
6. What would be the 3 most important events for your Embassy until the end of this year?
This year we already organized a big event dedicated to the work of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. With the exhibition of the marvelous jewels by the Italian jeweler Diego Percossi Papi at the National Gallery, last spring we presented to the Bulgarian public an ideal journey through Dante’s hell, purgatory and paradise. We were moved by the great interest shown by Bulgarians: there was always a long line to enter the exhibition and the National Gallery asked us to prolong it in order to give the possibility to everyone to visit it. It was indeed a great success for us, for the National Gallery and for the Italian System in Bulgaria.
For the next months, we have a rich and integrated program with other pillars of the Italian System in Bulgaria (the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian trade agency) that operate under the umbrella of the Embassy. I invite you to visit regularly our websites (Embassy: www.ambsofia.esteri.it; Institute of Culture: www.iicsofia.esteri.it; Italian Trade Agency: www.ice.it/it/mercati/bulgaria/sofia) and our social media channels (on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube) where you will find updated news on our initiatives and events. For the coming months, I recommend in particular two main appointments: the Italian Language week at the end of October and the Italian Kitchen Week at the end of November. The language week is addressed to the lovers and scholars of Italian language, with many initiatives organized in the schools where Italian language is taught; the Italian Kitchen week will put at its core the Italian Restaurants in Bulgaria and the Italian products imported all over the capital and in the food markets.
7. How deep has the COVID pandemic affected the bilateral relations between Bulgaria and your country?
The COVID pandemic affected the world system, as we knew it. At the beginning of 2020, in few weeks we had to witness events we would never imagine before: the closing of borders, the suspension of flights and the lockdowns in our cities. Luckily, with the vaccination and its distribution in the EU and the world the situation turned better and today we are finally over the most delicate phase of the health emergency.
The world trade and exchanges are now going back to their pre-pandemic levels. This is true also for the relations between Italy and Bulgaria: after a 2020 and a 2021 with significant loss on both sides, the slowdown of trade and travel, these first 9 months of 2022 registered a new trend, with a strong increase in both trade and investment flows.
8. What advice can you give to Bulgarians who want to do business with people from your country?
Bulgarians are doing business with Italians with great results since many with reciprocal satisfaction; yet it can be improved: considering the specific aspects of the Italian mindset and the Italian way of doing business, I think Bulgarians are in an advantageous position when dealing with Italians: the close relations between our Countries, the cultural and historical similarities and the genuine friendship between the two peoples represent strong assets for future relations between the two Countries.
Listening to the experiences of Italian Companies in Bulgaria there are some aspects that could be improved. The first thing that Italians usually underline is the difficulty in dealing with the Bulgarian bureaucracy. Sometimes bureaucracy in Bulgaria can be hard to tackle, in particular, if there is nobody speaking English. But what they complain often is the lack of transparency in procurement procedures.
The second aspect that our Companies often signal us regards the lack of infrastructural connections in the country. There are indeed areas of Bulgaria, which could be perfect for foreign productive investments, but Companies do not consider them for the logistical difficulties coming from the absence of adequate road and railways connection.
Finally, Italian companies are sometimes prevented from investing in the Country due to political instability. Last year three political elections and this year another one are a factor that influences the investment choices of foreign Companies, which may prefer to wait or to address their investments somewhere else.
9. Tell us about yourself - what was your professional diplomatic career, how long have you been in Bulgaria, and what are the most fascinating places or even dishes for you in Bulgaria?
I entered the diplomatic career in 1991, after studying Political Sciences at the University of Urbino and a Master's Program in Diplomacy and International Relations offered by Società Italiana Organizzazioni Internazionali (SIOI) in Rome. In 1991, there were not that many women in the diplomatic career and in my promotion, we were only two.
I spent 2 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Protocol Department followed by 2 years in the Economic Relations Department where I focused on North Africa and Middle East Countries. In 1994, I was assigned to my first mandate abroad here, in Sofia. Bulgaria then was very different from we can see today and I will always bring with me the memories of the four years I spent here and all the acquaintances and friends I made during those unforgettable years.
After Bulgaria, from 1998 to 2001, I was posted to the Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, where I dealt with domestic policy, press and cultural affairs. After eight years abroad, I went back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I was Head of the multilateral financial desk at the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Cooperation, responsible for foreign debt negotiations and export credit.
I was then posted as First Counsellor to the Italian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, where I was responsible for peacekeeping and peacebuilding. In this role, I followed the negotiations leading to the Italian participation in Unifil 2 in Southern Lebanon and the establishment of the Strategic Military Cell at the DPKO. I was also member of the Italian delegation to the Security Council in 2007-2008, responsible for peacekeeping operations and I represented Italy at the UN Peacebuilding Commission.
Later I spent nine years back in Rome where I started as Head of the Multilateral Desk at the Directorate General for Global Affairs, responsible for the coordination and participation in multilateral negotiations within international organizations, including the OECD, the WTO, the UNCTAD, the ICAO, the IMO and the ESA.
From 2015 to 2018 I was appointed Diplomatic Advisor to the Italian Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and then until 2019 Diplomatic Advisor to the Minister for European Affairs.
Since the beginning of January 2021, I am the Italian Ambassador to Bulgaria, the first woman in 143 years of diplomatic relations.
10. If you must describe Bulgaria in just three words, what would they be?
This is a difficult question for me because Bulgaria had a great role in my life being my first foreign posting in the ‘90s and my first posting as an Ambassador now. Bulgarians welcomed me when I arrived here as a young diplomat in 1994 and made me feel at home as I feel at home today.
I left Bulgaria in 1998 to move to my second assignment abroad, but I have always kept close contacts with many friends and acquaintances that I have in your Country, and I have been following the developments and the changes in the political, economic, social and cultural life.
I kept coming back for few days occasionally until 2005 and then the last time I visited Bulgaria briefly on a working mission was in 2010. I already saw some changes coming but I think that the most important ones came after Bulgaria joined European Union and NATO. Bulgaria benefited by this membership and yes, the membership helped Bulgaria to undergo changes and go on with developments. By joining, the EU Bulgaria came back to the European family to which it naturally belonged.
At the same time, like every EU member State, like Italy, Bulgaria kept its essence, its national character, its spirit, that I learned to know and love in my first years here. Because the European Union is great and strong in its diversity that is its richness.
Nevertheless, not everything has changed and I can say that I have found intact the characteristics that made me love this country and its inhabitants: the strength of character, the sociability, the irony, the welcoming attitude, love for culture and knowledge. The beauty of the landscape as well as the richness of its ancient history and its popular traditions.
After many years, I still find the old beautiful sensation in walking along the streets of Sofia, or visiting the Monasteries in the countryside or celebrating traditional family parties. You have preserved well your own traditions and beauties, monuments, art and landscape.
The new Ambassador of Italy to Bulgaria, Giuseppina Zarra took up her duties at the Embassy of Italy in Sofia in January 2021. Born in Salerno and graduated from Urbino in Political Science, she later attended the specialization school of the Italian Society for the International Organization, before entering the Italian diplomatic service in 1991. Bulgaria was precisely her first foreign destination, since 1994 to 1998. Giuseppina Zarra then moved to the Italian Embassy in Ottawa, Canada from 1998 to 2002. From 2006 to 2009 she has served as Counsellor at the Italian Permanent Mission to the UN, in charge of Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding, in particular as member of the Italian Delegation at the UN Security Council 2007-2008. Then, between 2010 and 2015, she was Head of the Multilateral Desk at the Directorate General for Global Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome. Among her most recent assignments, she was Diplomatic Advisor to the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure from 2015 to 2018 and Diplomatic Advisor to the Minister for European Affairs from 2018 to 2019. From November 2019 to December 2020 she served as National Coordinator for the EU Macrostrategy for the Alpine Region and member of all the Intergovernmental Commissions on Trans Alpine connections and EU TEN-T Corridors.
Novinite.com presents its new series titled: “Ambassador Talks”. It consists of interviews with Ambassadors or Heads of Missions accredited to Bulgaria in order to see their point of view on current developments - both domestic, bilateral and international. Each interview will have the same 10 questions.
Our Honorable guests so far:
Ambassador of China, His Excellency Mr. Dong Xiaojun. You can read his interview here.
Ambassador of Denmark, His Excellency Mr. Jes Brogaard Nielsen. You can read his interview here.
Chargée d'Affaires ad interim of Germany Irene Maria Plank. You can read her interview here.
Ambassador of Spain, His Excellency Mr. Alejandro Polanco Mata. You can read his interview here.
Representatives of Embassies based in Bulgaria can contact Novinite for more information at Office@novinitegroup.com
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