Next year, the Italian region of Lombardy takes over as the leader of the so-called ‘Four Motors of Europe’ group, an association that includes also Baden-Württemberg in Germany, Rhône-Alpes in France and Catalonia in Spain. Lombardy’s turn comes at a time when Europe could certainly use some extra horsepower.

Launched in 1988, the relationship between the four is intended to involve co-operation in such fields as science, research, education and culture, and to help boost economic growth within the regions. The president of Lombardy, Roberto Maroni, espouses a broader mission.

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“What happens in Lombardy and in the other three regions is essential for Europe,” says Mr Maroni, a former interior minister of Italy who took office in Lombardy in March 2013. He is also a leader of the Northern League political party, an opponent of Italy’s current government. “Next year we will have European elections and [currently] Europe is not perceived as an opportunity, as something good, in Italy or elsewhere in Europe. So, I see a role to drive the growth for Italy and Europe and to lead public opinion, not against Europe, but for a new Europe. This is the role I want to have.”

Efforts hampered

How much these comparatively wealthy regions can do to kick-start the sputtering eurozone economy is debatable. Closer to home, Lombardy has a long enough haul in helping drag Italy back to growth. But the region is certainly not short on confidence.

“We are one of the biggest regions in Europe – 10 million people live in Lombardy – it is bigger than more than half of the states in Europe. We are as big as Belgium, and we want to play a role in Europe,” says Mr Maroni.

Lombardy has economic clout, and a large and powerful industrial base, but its FDI competitiveness is hampered by some of Italy’s shortcomings as an investment destination. “As far as attracting investment is concerned, we are weak in some aspects such as cost of labour, which is very high, higher than in most of the European countries. It’s much higher than in Switzerland, which is close to Lombardy and is very attractive to companies,” says Mr Maroni. “Also in terms of bureaucracy, the time it takes to grant an authorisation to do anything is 10 times longer in Lombardy than it is in Switzerland.”

Making life easier

Aware of both the competitive pressures from its Swiss neighbours, while at the same time shackled to Italy’s notoriously cumbersome bureaucracy, Lombardy’s room for manoeuvre is restricted. Mr Maroni admits that he can only really affect 30% to 40% of the operating environment faced by companies in his jurisdiction in terms of procedures, because the rest is down to national legislation and administrative factors beyond the region’s remit. But he is slashing what red tape he can and hoping to reframe attitudes as well. And he insists that a 30% to 40% difference is enough to have an impact on foreign investment.

“I want to change the philosophical approach, which is now: ‘I am the region, you want to start a business. I don’t trust you, I think that you are something more similar to a criminal than an entrepreneur, and so you have to give me all this information and a ton of documents, and after three, four, five years, maybe you will have the authorisation.’ And the answer is, ‘Well, bye bye, I’ll go to Switzerland’,” says Mr Maroni. “Instead I want the approach to be ‘I trust you, you want to make business in Lombardy, and I want to help you'."

He adds that he wants to bring Lombardy to the point where needed approvals for businesses entering the region take three weeks rather than three years.

Many of the new business measures the Lombardy government is implementing are aimed at start-ups – the natural drivers of innovation. For entrepreneurs under the age of 40, local taxes involved in setting up a business have been cancelled and from 2014 the same will apply to regional taxes.  

“We have to concentrate on innovation,” says Mr Maroni. “I want to create a network – a structural link – between industry and universities. We are creating a regional fund to pay for private investments in this area.”

Innovation support 

Mr Maroni also wants to double the percentage of regional funds for research and innovation – which currently stands at 1.6% of the Lombardy regional GDP – up to 3% in the next five years. “Three percent is one of the highest rates in Europe – Denmark has 3%. In the OECD area, the highest percentage is Israel, which is 5%. [In the next five years I want Lombardy to go from] 1.6% to 5%, which means more than €9bn, because the Lombardy GDP is €330bn. And 3% GDP in regional funds is my objective,” he says.

Lombardy’s capital, Milan, is set to host the world Expo in 2015 and regional and local officials have high hopes for the branding and profile-raising opportunities the event presents. But here too, Lombardy sees the role of Expo host as bigger than just a local one.

 “During Expo, Milan has to become the capital of Europe,” says Mr Maroni. “I talked a few months ago with the US ambassador in Italy, and he told me that from a US viewpoint, Expo is not limited to Italy. It is not an Italian event. For them, [looking at it] from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, it makes sense if Expo is just ‘Europe’. And so the effort we are putting into this is to present and show the Expo Milan as the Expo Milan Europe.”