Q: Politics in Europe and also in Italy are complicated at the moment, with Brexit, Italy’s constitutional referendum and other issues affecting the EU. Do you sense that this is causing uncertainty among potential investors?
A: Probably. We had some problems after the referendum results on December 4 in Italy about the constitutional reforms and I’ve [sensed] much more uncertainty about the stability about the institutional and political system in Italy. Before the referendum I met many investors not only in Italy but also in Europe and the US, who asked me ‘what happens in the referendum if you do not win?’.
Unfortunately we had no winner. In fact, we had some problems in the financial and investment fields in Italy. But at this moment we are re-establishing a good balance and we also have to take into consideration that the negative effects do not affect some cities in Italy – because we have some cities that are very strong and competitive in international contests with other European cities. Florence is one of those cities. We didn’t receive any negative effects after the referendum.
In Europe, we have many big issues and challenges. The Netherlands elections have just passed, then the French and German elections [are ahead] and the Italian elections probably at the beginning of next year. I think all of these elections will be very important for the European future. A populist party winner would be a very big problem for stability and trust [when it comes to] international investors in Europe, because a win for a nationalist party means a risk to European unification.
Q: One of the worries that business people have is that they were quite keen on the reform programme of Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi. Now he has stepped down [following the failed referendum], reform momentum might be called into question. What can leaders such as yourself do at a city level to ensure the reforms are still happening?
A: I think that the mayors in Italy should have a very strategic role in order to increase reform and other political programmes for two reasons. The first reason is that the local mayors represent the first level in which the Italian people still have belief. Because now, Italians don’t believe in national politics; they consider them to be too high up, too indifferent to their daily problems. So we have this reputation that we can use.
The second reason is that local leaders have ‘bottom-up power’, so they can increase this ‘bottom-up process’ involving citizens, much more now through new participation models. We have a direct democratic rule, we are directly elected – so we have a direct representation and a direct accountability to our citizens.
We have big influence in very concrete fields that citizens consider to be important for their futures: bank security, social security, local economic development, public transport, new jobs, investments in schools – all of these problems are very well known by mayors. So I believe in new local leadership being integrated with national leadership.
In Florence, for example, since 2015 we have had a new urban plan with certain timelines and clear rules. These two aspects are very important for private investors who sometimes consider Italy as having too much bureaucracy and too many legal problems. So we solved these problems with the new urban plan. With this plan we can refurbish 800,000 square metres of old buildings – for example army barracks, old offices and abandoned buildings that we want to refurbish.
Our plans are based on a principle of ‘zero’ volumes. We do not need to consume new land. We have a sustainable vision about transformation. We only want to refurbish old heritage. I think this is a very modern point of view for European cities.