Pontignano cloister

The Pontignano Conference is one of the most important annual events in the UK-Italy bilateral relationship, each year aiming to bring together a select group of influential delegates from the worlds of Education and Academia, Technology and Innovation, Culture and Society, Business and Finance, Politics, Foreign and Security Policy, Government and the Media. 

The Pontignano conference started in 1993. It brings together current and future leaders from the UK and Italy to address common challenges and develop networks and close relationships. Organised by the British Embassy in Italy, the British Council and Siena University, the conference has developed a network that includes ministers, prime ministers, presidents and leaders from the business and academic.

The 2019 Pontignano Conference took place on 26-28 September 2019.

The theme was Navigating the New World: Strategic Challenges and Strategic Choices for the UK and Italy.

The conference is designed in such a way as to provide a structured yet informal opportunity for conversation, debate and relationship-building, over the course of two days, in the quiet and beautiful setting of an old monastery outside of Siena. Most of the proceedings take place under Chatham House Rules – in other words, individuals cannot be quoted outside the framework of the conference.

A core part of what we do are the workshop sessions on Day 2, which are moderated by leading Italian and British figures in each field and which are highly participative, round-table occasions. A select number of speeches in plenary, including a Keynote speech before the opening dinner and a session for Ministerial speeches followed by Q&A, took also place.

The Pontignano Co-Chairs take an active role in the planning and the delivery of the event and we are delighted that Lord David Willetts, who has been involved ever since the first Pontignano 25 years ago, was joined by Italy’s former Minister for Economic Development, Mr Carlo Calenda.

2019 Pontignano Conference: concept note

Exactly eighty years ago, Europe plunged into the devastation of the Second World War. In response to that appalling experience, the United Nations, the cornerstone of the Rules Based International System, was founded. With its affiliated bodies, it has kept the peace, promoted free trade and stable economic growth and nurtured international development ever since. But that post-war system is now under pressure.

Thirty years on from the invention of the World Wide Web, rapid technological change - including the advent of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence - is disrupting the old economic paradigm. Trade protectionism is on the rise. On the geopolitical level, the US is pursuing an “America First” policy, while a rising China is exerting ever greater impact on the global stage. We are starting to see the devastating impact of climate change. European nations face demographic decline, while migratory pressures from the developing world are increasing. How should Europe, the UK and Italy navigate this new world? Who do we need as strategic partners, and which strategic threats must we guard against?

2019 Pontignano Conference: the workshops

1. Strategic Threats – or Strategic Partners? How should Europe, the UK and Italy engage with rising powers in order to preserve the Rules Based International System?

As the US pursues an “America First” policy, other global actors are moving quickly to fill the void. China is striving to establish its dominance in the South China Sea, is investing on a grand scale in Africa and is building new alliances rapidly through its Belt and Road Initiative. In Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey have established themselves as key players. In a changing world, how do we preserve the Rules Based International System? Who should our strategic partners be? And how do we protect ourselves against the associated strategic threats, including cyberattacks on critical information systems and the corrosive impact of disinformation?

2. Building the Infrastructure for a Sustainable Future

Uncontrolled climate change will impose terrible costs on the global economy. The world is already counting the cost of more frequent extreme weather events such as Cyclone Idai. To meet the Paris goal of keeping global temperature increases below two degrees, we must act decisively now. The UK and Italy are already world leaders. The UK ranks 7th on the World Economic Forum list of countries most ready for energy transition; Italy was in the top three for energy efficiency policy in 2017. How can our governments merge industrial and green growth strategies to create a robust framework to support sustainable economic growth? How can our companies invest sustainably for the future to drive the energy transition, making maximum use of digital technology and artificial intelligence to improve productivity and use resources efficiently? What will be the impact of the Internet of Things? And how can we encourage foreign direct investment in our infrastructure in a sustainable way?

3. Migration, Integration and Demographic Change

Demographic change is already impacting on most European nations, with falling birth rates and rising life expectancy. The birth rate per woman in 2016 was 1.8 in the UK and 1.4 in Italy, compared with 4.8 in sub-Saharan Africa. The ageing society has a high economic cost, including a growing tax burden on workers, greater demands on health care services and labour shortages. These disadvantages can be mitigated through increased legal migration. But this can be controversial if people fear that their traditional culture and beliefs are under threat, or if newcomers are seen as competing for jobs. At the same time, Europe faces a high level of illegal migratory flows. Climate change risks adding to the pressures driving illegal migration to Europe, and so will any increase in instability in sub-Saharan Africa and the countries bordering the Mediterranean. How should we respond to these challenges? And how do we address the risk that a lack of integration may lead to social tension and even radicalisation?

4. Science and Society – Facts and Opinions

In the complex environment of the 21st century, Science and Technology underpin our societies to an ever greater extent. But unless those societies become more scientifically literate, social media scare campaigns can create echo chambers where public fears are rapidly amplified, leading to the rejection of scientific advice and discoveries – as the “vaccine wars” have shown. Climate change deniers argue that scientific evidence is just a matter of opinion. Whose responsibility is it to demystify science and to make it a shared cultural heritage for all? How do we educate our children to understand the importance of basing their thinking on the best possible facts, and make sure that our politicians understand the importance of evidence-based policy making? And how can we give the public an informed and influential voice in the policy-making process?