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Italy – Sri Lanka Ties:  Coronavirus Creates Uncertainties about Economic Diplomacy

By Srimal Fernando and Yashodha Rathnayake

13 April 2020

The Coronavirus outbreak claimed more than 18,200 victims in Italy. On the whole, story about the coronavirus pandemic remains the same in most parts of the world. Apart from the lower number of victims, as many as 190 coronavirus cases have so far been hospitalized in Sri Lanka. As an unprecedented nationwide shutdown looms, Sri Lankan and Italian authorities are working tirelessly to tackle this deadly respiratory disease. So it is really important that both nations stand the test of time to pursue close collaborative efforts during these difficult times.

Coronavirus situation in Italy
Due to the coronavirus crisis, both nations are finding it challenging to handle 104,000 Sri Lankans living in various places around Italy (The Sri Lankan community in Italy, Annual report on the presence of migrants, 2018). More than half of the Sri Lankans are residing in Northern Italian tourist towns such as Lombardy, Campania and in Veneto. In Lombardy, the number of coronavirus cases surged to at least 49,118. As per the reports, Southern Italy appears to have a relatively lesser number of COVID -19 cases, compared to the north. Of those Sri Lankans living in Italy, 26% live in the Southern part of Italy. Amidst the unfortunate coronavirus situation in Italy, the Sri Lankan Foreign Relations Ministry on 24th  February 2020 has issued the following statement "The Foreign Relations Ministry in coordination with the Sri Lanka Embassy in Rome and the Consulate General Office in Milan has taken action to closely monitor and coordinate efforts to ensure the safety of Sri Lankans residing in Italy, following the recent rise of COVID-19 cases, particularly in the Lombardy Region".

New Challenges to Economic Diplomacy  
Further, the complex situation has the potential to derail Italy - Sri Lanka commerce in the areas of tourism, textiles and the food processing sectors. The bilateral commerce between the two nations is worth (€) 740 million euros (Economic Intelligence Unit of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce for Ambasciata d'Italia, 2019). In this context, tourism is amongst the harshest hit of all commercial segments in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, statistics reveal that over 36,000 Italians visit this coastal paradise every year. Italy increased its ranking to the 10th leading source country of all tourists coming to Sri Lanka in 2019. In addition, Italy is also a member of the European Union (EU) which provides Sri Lanka tariff-free access to the EU markets through Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) plus scheme. This GSP plus scheme alone allowed Sri Lanka to export (€) 2.7 billion euros worth of goods to the EU in 2017.
Over the years Italy a key member of the EU has been supportive to Sri Lanka in its development process. According to the latest reports, the European Union (EU) states, ‘it will provide a (€)22 million euros  grant to support Sri Lanka's COVID-19 response.’  In addition, the EU statement emphasized: "Sri Lanka's very low number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far is impressive." Today Italy and Sri Lanka’s relations are at multiple layers and the trade ties have benefited the island nation enormously.

Diplomatic History
Going back along the corridors of diplomatic history for centuries Holy See, the headquarters of the Vatican for the 1.3 billion Catholics spread across the world have implemented considerable political influence over Italy.  In this perspective, the 1.2 million Catholics living in Sri Lanka have major associations with the worldwide Catholics.  This significant diplomatic link paved the way for the formation of Sri Lanka's strong relations with Italy bringing it closer to Western nations.  From the inception, Sri Lanka and Italy have made enormous strides in diplomatic cooperation. Moreover, the political ties between the two nations in the past were strengthened by several high-level visits from Italy to Sri Lanka.  Given the longstanding bonds, Aid, trade, investment and governance through democracy have been valued core traits of Italy's foreign policy priorities towards Sri Lanka. This exclusive connection nevertheless, requires relentless consideration and nurturing to benefit both nations.

For a stronger bilateral relationship, there should be a collective pledge to strengthen the ties between the two countries along with a pragmatic foreign policy. In the face of the devastating coronavirus crisis, Italy and Sri Lanka should be willing to work together towards an ideal win-win situation.

Srimal Fernando is a Doctoral Fellow at Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), India and a Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa. He is the winner of the 2018/2019 'Best Journalist of the Year' award in South Africa, and has been the recipient of GCA Media Award for 2016.
Yashodha Jayathmi Rathnayake, a scholar BA (Hons) in English, at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Languages, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka.




February/March 2020








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