With Theresa May due to deliver a significant Brexit statement in Florence on the 22 September, John Bleasdale looks at Britain’s decision to leave the EU from his Italian Room with a View.
It was a beautiful day. We took our books, went to the lake, but we would stop reading every few minutes and say something along the lines of: ‘I don’t flipping believe it.’ We had watched the news. Against expectations, Britain had voted to leave the European Union. It had been a shock. The scenes of Nigel Farage happy had been particularly stomach-turning. I hadn’t voted for Brexit; I hadn’t voted against it. I hadn’t lived in Great Britain for seventeen years and this disqualified me from participating in the referendum, even though it soon became clear that British citizens living in the post-Brexit EU would now face an uncertain future as potential pawns in the negotiations. I was personally going to be okay. Disliking not being able to vote in a country where I paid tax, I had already gone through the two-year-long process of applying for Italian citizenship. At the time everyone thought it a needless hassle. That evening fellow Brits living in Italy lit up my Facebook asking me details about how to get the dual citizenship ball rolling.
Also that evening, we had to console our 12-year-old daughter who was upset, having spent the day with all the kids calling her ‘Brexit’. It was a sharp reversal and something that was to continue. In all my years of living in Italy, I had never once had my nationality impugned – far from it, it gained unwarranted respect. The English – for the Italians – are linked to reserve, calm, legality and intelligence. Even the aberration of the football hooligans, throwing plastic chairs at each other, were no longer regarded as particularly fearsome compared to the homegrown Ultras or the state-sponsored Russians.
The word ‘inglese’ runs through the Italian language, serving as a common adjective for a variety of things: ‘English soup’ is trifle; an ‘English key’ is a spanner; and ‘English sense of humour’ means something that’s supposed to be funny, but isn’t. That last one could easily sum up the reaction to Brexit. I spoke to a local factory owner and he was completely flummoxed by the decision. His business exports to EU countries as well as to the United States and South America and he didn’t see how the economic self-interest of a nation could be served by suddenly having to reinvent a market from scratch. Likewise, my students at the University of Venice were scratching their heads. Many of them were anglophiles but fortunately because of the broad reach of university courses in Italy, they were studying two other languages. I told them Great Britain had become Little Britain. Or to be more precise, the second series of Little Britain: something that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t.
That isn’t to say there aren’t Eurosceptics in Italy. The owner of my local pizzeria thought the Brits had pulled off a cunning move: the smartness of which, however, relied on some secret that he wasn’t yet privy to: ‘it looks stupid now, but you wait and see…’ When Euros began to circulate in Italy in 2002, then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was loathe to make the historic change – organized by predecessor and arch-enemy Romano Prodi – a success. The inattentive administration meant price controls were lax and everything became more expensive as the Euro inflated to look more like the Lira. More recently dissatisfaction with the EU has risen as a result of the inadequacy of the response to a refugee crisis which has seen Greece and Italy disproportionately take the strain.
But with shops and businesses rushing to prefix their names with ‘Euro’ – my local supermarket is called Eurospesa – and the little European flags appearing everywhere as part of an influx of EU funding, Italy simply feels more European. The post-Brexit rush to get others to jump ship – Grexit, Frexit etc. – stuttered to a halt and despite an ill-advised referendum torpedoing PM Matteo Renzi, the ridiculous portmanteau ‘Quitaly’ never looked likely. Euro-sceptic party the 5 Star Movement pledged to leave the Euro and then quietly unpledged it.
If anything with the dust settling, Italy is now looking to take advantage of the vacuum left by the departing Brits. The Brexodus of agencies and businesses from Great Britain are already being wooed by the financial capital Milan as well as Rome. If the negotiations go really badly – which now has to be regarded as the most likely outcome – Italy will look to be a beneficiary, joining France and Germany as a steering triumvirate to the future of the EU.
When Theresa May chose to make her speech in Florence, it is tempting to see her as a version of Lucy Honeychurch in EM Foster’s novel A Room with a View. Like Lucy, the British Prime Minister might be inspired by the Tuscan sun to give up her narrow Edwardian outlook and her marriage to Cecil Vyse. But we all know this is not going to happen. The chances are her speech, already overshadowed by Boris Johnson’s hippopotamus like harrumphing from the sidelines, will be an irrelevance, another series of magical-thinking platitudes that somehow wants to leave Europe without leaving Europe. For the Italians, the venue is more important than the speech. The mayor of the city Dario Nardella saw the choice as reaffirming the city of Dante and Machiavelli as the ‘historical heart of Europe’. It is a role which the country as a whole would gladly assume.