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The EIB Institute's STAREBEI program: an interview with Antonio Bonatesta

Posted on 30 May 2019
Antonio Bonatesta is a Research Fellow of the Alcide De Gasperi Research Centre. He recently presented the results of his research project “The European Investment Bank and the ‘Mezzogiorno’ in the Context of Regional Development (1958-1973)”, aimed at investigating the European Investment Bank’s (EIB) activities in the South of Italy. We decided to interview him since he conducted his research at the Historical Archives of the European Union and at the Archives of the European Investment Bank in the framework of the EIB’s STAREBEI programme, which provides grants to universities aimed at financing junior researchers.

Bonatesta’s experience in delivering his research with an institutional sponsor gives us an insiders’ account into what it means to carry out a scientifically-independent research project having the European Investment Bank as partner and financial backer.  We discussed the results of his research, how was his experience as a STAREBEI fellow, and his relation – as an historian – with his sponsor and tutors. «I didn't know what to expect from a research programme in which a “customer” is directly interested in how its 'image' emerges from a history based research» he says. And, in a broader reflection on the role of academics in society, Antonio also observes: «As historians, we have to globally re-think ourselves and our mission, we cannot afford to produce content only for the narrow intellectual or academic environments».

What was the focus of your research? What are the main results you have achieved? 

My goal has been to retrace the way the EIB historically intervened in the context of Southern Italy's development. I adopted a timeframe which goes from the creation of the Bank, in 1958, to 1973, a date conventionally used to point out a break into the international economic order. The research showed us how the EIB ‘s commitment to the Mezzogiorno was characterized, on the one hand, by a reciprocal influence with the European Commission - in particular in the first years of activity - in order to establish the basis of an EEC regional policy both under a theoretical and a pragmatic point of view. On the other hand, at a national level, the Bank had to go through a demanding path aimed at gaining experience within the 'extraordinary intervention' (the 'intervento straordinario') system. This system presided over the industrial credit facilities in the South by means of bodies such as the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno as well as the regional credit institutes: Isveimer, Irfis and Cis. By studying these relations and the reciprocal ways of influence, I managed to understand in deeper manner the establishment of the EIB's credit policy and some of the most important decisions taken by the Italian national authorities during the '60s. I really hope my research, which will be published partly on the EUI's CADMUS repository for scientific reviews, can offer a real contribution to the advancement of historiography in the field of European integration history. 

So, do you think the EIB has had a positive impact on Italy - and more specifically - on Southern Italy?

The EIB fully participated in the national effort for the Southern industrialization. During the period I took into consideration, the Bank's loans contributed to a slowing down in internal Italian dualism between the North and the South. In these years, the Mezzogiorno grew at a very fast rate and the gap with the Northern regions was reduced by 6 percentage points in terms of per capita GDP. The EIB was a key player of this season, contributing to the building of the Southern heavy and basic industry and trying to support public and private capital investments in the iron and steel and chemical and engineering sectors.

What does it mean to do research through the STAREBEI program? What was your experience? 

It has been a great opportunity to broaden my horizons, to improve my skills, to acquire new intellectual methods and 'habits' towards doing academic research, to think of myself as a complete and independent researcher, I admit that at the beginning, I didn't know what to expect from a research programme in which a “customer” is directly interested in how its 'image'  emerges from a history based research. My experience within the STAREBEI programme made me realise that all these concerns soon disappear. Furthermore, thanks to the STAREBEI I better understood the meaning and the importance of creating historical knowledge beyond the academic boundaries. As historians we have to globally re-think ourselves and our mission, we cannot afford to produce content only for the narrow intellectual or academic environments. It is part of our mission to spread our research to a wide non-specialist public. The day I presented my research results in Luxembourg, among the EIB executives and employees, was one of the most exciting in my career to date!

How was your relationship with the EIB Institute? As a historian, what was your relationship with the EIB and your STAREBEI tutors? 

As I've just said, I soon realised the EIB Institute is an environment completely devoted to the achievement of its institutional objectives. This means they are concerned that you can work without constraints by trying to remove potential obstacles in your path. The monitoring of my work plan was conducted in a very collaborative way. So, I sincerely would like to give thanks to the STAREBEI programme executives and people in charge of the EIB's Historical Archives for their kind support: Mr Fulceri Bruni Roccia, Mrs Micaela Celio - who was my EIB tutor -, Mrs Florence Biro and Mrs Birgit Olsen. Birgit, who was my EIB Archives tutor, really helped me to gain a 'bird's-eye view' all over the huge amount of EIB's archival sources directly linked to my research topic.

What is the role that the documents of the Historical Archives of the European Union played in your research?

At the time I was beginning the STAREBEI research I had already gained considerable experience with the HAEU's documentation. Indeed, between 2015 and 2017 I benefited from a Postgraduate Vibeke Sørensen grant as well as from the EPP-HAEU 'Christian Democracy and European Integration' grant. This represented an advantage for me because I was already aware of the main fonds kept in Florence and where to find relevant pieces of information for my research. Moreover, that part of the EIB fond stored at the HAEU – which contains several files such as the Bank's Board of Directors minutes - is completely digitised so it has been really easy to access fundamental sources.

The Alcide de Gasperi Research Center and the HAEU succeeded in supporting your needs as a researcher?

Absolutely yes. The ADGRC and the HAEU supported all my efforts both at the scientific and at the administrative level. At Villa Salviati I found a stimulating, passionate and welcoming environment. Everyone, from the director to the visiting fellowships, associate researchers, archivists and the administration staff is concerned about how to facilitate your tasks. I’d like to give a special thank to the director Dieter Schlenker as well as my two academic tutors: professors Federico Romero and Carlo Spagnolo, who lead me through the work.

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