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The mysterious departure of the Italian Ambassador in Canberra

Former Italian Ambassador Stefano Gatti (L) confers Opera Australia's artistic director Lyndon Terracini the title of "Commander of The Order of The Star". Source: Prudence Upton courtesy of Opera Australia

The Italian Ambassador in Australia, Stefano Gatti, has suddenly left Canberra to return to Rome, effectively ending his mandate. It is a departure that happened in silence and without official announcements.

On Monday February 25, Italian Ambassador Stefano Gatti returned to Italy, after less than one year in charge as the chief Italian diplomat in Australia.

An exit that happened quietly, without official announcements. SBS Italian contacted the embassy to ask the reasons for the Ambassador's return to Italy.

On Tuesday, an embassy spokesperson confirmed the return to Rome of Stefano Gatti, officially for personal reasons. The spokesperson added that Gatti will continue to work for the foreign ministry in Rome. The same spokesperson did not provide any further detail on the matter.

The end of Mr Gatti's mandate, if confirmed, looks unusually premature to experts and politicians questioned by SBS Italian, especially since the Ambassador arrived in Australia last March.

The first part of Mr Gatti's mandate as Ambassador was marked by the conclusion of the multi billion-dollar tender to build Australia's new fleet of warships. Just three months after the ambassador's inauguration, the $35 billion contract was eventually won by British BAE Systems, in what was seen as an unexpected defeat for Italian competitor Fincantieri and a setback for Italian industry.

The announcement by former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull was met with disappointment in Rome and by the Ambassador Gatti in Canberra. Italian language Australian newspaper "Il Globo", quoted Stefano Gatti referring to the tender as "a missed opportunity for Australia".

According to Francesco Giacobbe, the Italian senator representing the international electorate comprising Australia [Italian citizens abroad can vote for the Italian Parliament by electing their own representatives], the ambassador's departure was likely not directly linked to the Australian Navy tender. Speaking to SBS Italian he confirmed that the official reason for his return to Rome is of a personal nature.

Nonetheless the Fincantieri defeat is one of the two main events occurred during Gatti's mandate, alongside the cancellation of Italian President Sergio Mattarella's visit to Australia, a decision that many commentators saw as a reaction to the Navy contract saga.

According to Gabriele Abbondanza, a researcher at the University of Sydney specialising in geopolitics and diplomatic relations between Italy and Australia, the Fincantieri defeat was unexpected and could signal a setback in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"For Italy, to win such a contract in Australia would have meant the possibility to show the world that its technological and defence capabilities are top-level. But it would have also given the opportunity to consolidate a friendship relationship [between Australia and Italy] which exists, it goes a long way back but that needs be consistently nourished and looked after," he said.

According to Abbondanza, the Italian defeats demonstrate a necessity to rethink the relations between Italy and Australia as Canberra's decision to prefer British BAE Systems' proposal for the tender could be seen as "political", an "artificial priority lane" in Australia's relationship with the United Kingdom.

And according to Abbondanza the defeat of Fincantieri shows diplomatic mistakes on behalf of the two parties, in spite of Italy being one of Australia's main partners both at political and economic levels. Nonetheless, notes Abbondanza, no strategic partnership agreement has been signed between Italy and Australia, while Canberra has such agreements in place with partners that are as important or even less important than Italy, such as France and Germany. "We can see the results of these agreements," he said.

The French state-owned company Naval Group will build the Australian submarines fleet while German shipbuilder Lürssen will build patrol vessels for the Australian navy.

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