Before the crisis, Asia was still the bargain-basement factory of the world, where companies would offshore production to cut costs. Nowadays one need only count the container traffic to see the new shape of the global economy: last year, US-EU trade accounted for 5.2 million TEUs (20-foot containers), EU-Asian trade 16 million, and intra-Asian trade 56 million! A dizzying figure that confirms the ascendancy of the Far East as the No 1 market for manufactured goods. Germany’s boom, by the way, has been partly fuelled by its shrewd foray into Asian markets over the past ten years.

At present, 80% of exports from northeast Italy go to the gradually recovering European countries, 8% to Eastern European markets, which leaves only crumbs for the Asian tigers. So the future of the industrial locomotive in northeast Italy will depend on its ability to tap new markets. And the only way to reach them is via the gateways of international trade.

Hanseatic network still most attractive cluster of ports

Naturally, back when the Atlantic market was going full steam, goods would be shipped to China via Antwerp or Rotterdam. Even today, out of 100 outgoing containers from Venetian factories, 40 still pass through the northern ports. But this paradoxical and asymmetrical arrangement entails added costs that are no longer bearable.

Many entrepreneurs in the region are racking their brains over this skewed situation: the Hanseatic network, a vestige of the Atlantic’s erstwhile hegemony, is still the most attractive cluster of ports – and yet the eastward shift of the global economy in theory puts the North Adriatic in a position to guarantee what are naturally more competitive transit times and shipping costs to Asia.

Development of super-port in Trieste-Monfalcone

The EU poker game that will decide the fate of our little ports ultimately hinges on geopolitics, but for the first time Italy has been dealt a good enough hand to stay and see its rivals. In fact, Brussels is currently debating which port facilities to bank on. Does it still make sense to pump money into Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp to reinforce their logistics and rail networks and their hegemony over against the southern front, or would it be a sounder investment to shore up the new Mediterranean springboards?

A few months ago the presidents of the port authorities of Koper [Slovenia], Venice, Trieste and Ravenna set up the NAPA(North Adriatic Ports Association) and drafted development projects to the tune of €3.4 billion (€2.2bn thereof to be secured on the market and €1.2bn from public funds). Those projects include a super-port in Trieste-Monfalcone with a target capacity of 3.2 million TEU as against 300,000 at present; a “Motorways of the Sea” terminal (to handle containers and oceangoing vessels in Venice); a new Pier 3 and container terminal at Koper; and digging canals and improvements to Ravenna’s railway system.

Fits with EU strategy to reduce carbon footprint

But Brussels’ eyes have also been opened by the success of the new weekly AAX (Asia-Adriatic Express) container-ship service launched by the consortium United Arab Shipping Co., Hanjin Shipping, Hyundai Merchant Marine and Yang Ming. Every week the vessels call at all the ports along the Upper Adriatic, linking them to Busan (South Korea), Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Colombo (Sri Lanka). And every Wednesday, 600 containers arrive in the Venetian lagoon filled with steel bands, stainless steel products and manufactured goods from China, Malaysia and Singapore for companies in northeast Italy. They take to the sea again carrying exported clothes, shoes, mineral water, marble and high-tech equipment from regional cutting-edge technology and engineering companies. The point is Venice’s location makes it the Adriatic port closest to the eastern markets in terms of transit time: 16 days to Singapore, 20 to Shanghai. And this swift shipping is beginning to attract production hubs and rich markets like Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland, as well as the enlarged Europe, which corresponds to only 7% of the Continental market but is growing fast.

But the real unique selling proposition for the EU is cuts in CO2 emissions. In the EU’s strategy to reduce the carbon footprints of its supply chains, a Hamburg-bound container from Singapore pollutes far more by way of Gibraltar. And with the new levies on greenhouse gas emissions, longer routes will soon take a heavy toll on retail prices. Calculations show that shipping a container from the Suez Canal to Munich via Venice, and not via Rotterdam, cuts CO2 emissions by 90 kg/TEU (if then forwarded by truck) and by 135 kg/TEU (if by rail). And that’s a telling argument for policymakers in Brussels.

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz