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.

John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.com and thestudioexec.com.

 

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6 Comments on "Ciao, Brexit"

  1. Looking at Farage’s face (thanks for that, mate, I was enjoying my breakfast!), it reminds me of my mother’s reaction to the vote.

    She is 93 and spent the war working on Ultra.

    She was horrified that so many people younger than her (60-80s) voted to leave. She says that she and her generation spent five years fighting nationalism and here we are voting for it.

    She has no interest whether Britain is better off financially in or out, but only that Europe used to be a place of petty wars and is now a place of friendship if you ignore some of the idiot politicians.

    Both of us were amazed that that was hardly talked about. For both sides in the argument, it has been a fight of me-me-me selfishness.

    I think that confused young voters too.

    As for your daughter, well, she is growing up in a land that has some of the best food in the world, the best weather in the world, and the worst drivers (you can’t get everything right.) We in the UK should be rightfully envious of her!

    • CC, the EU simply swaps nationalism for continentalism/supra-nationalism which I can’t see being any less damaging in the long run. After all, why does the EU impose tariffs on non EU goods?, why can’t North African countries join?, why do Americans need a visa to live within the bloc? why are their now concrete moves for an EU army? why are they demanding money from the UK to remain their ‘friend’?. It’s just nationalism on a huge scale. I would also say that I never heard my Grandparents mention nationalism as a reason they fought during WW2.

      I certainly wouldn’t envy a young person growing up in Italy. One in three young people is unemployed, of those employed, 15% don’t have a regular contract. In July the Bank of Italy received 80,000 applications for 30 average salary jobs!. It is why young Italians are leaving the country in their tens of thousands to work abroad. If you speak to an Italian expat they describe their country as mired in the past, incapable of change, where corruption is rife. A country ruled by the old for the benefit of the old. Their words not mine.

  2. I’m not sure the British, imperfect as they are have anything to learn from the Italians. Taking aside the seemingly endless state of torpor the country finds itself mired in, these are people who put Berlusconi in as PM (three times!) and then allowed his replacement to be a man they hadn’t even elected, who then appointed a cabinet who also hadn’t been elected. Hardly an advert for political astuteness.

    Italians needn’t hold their breath about attracting business from the UK, that won’t be happening at any significant scale, business that does leave will go to Northern Europe. They will of course get the odd agency thrown as a bone by the EU. Politically, Italy will be invited to three nation summits where they will do as they are told by France and Germany rather than “steering” anything.

    I love this dual citizenship lark by the way. Why any country bothers offering it rather than permanent residency baffles me. The requirement should be to renounce your original nationality on receiving your new one to show you are truly committed to your new country. All these Brits clamouring for dual status, what would their response be if they found themselves getting call up papers from the Italian armed forces?, 99% of them would do a runner straight back to the UK. Get in trouble outside of the UK and Italy and I bet they will be heading straight to the British embassy, not the Italian one. We ought to bring in the same tax rules as the US, you hold the passport, your subject to UK tax above a certain level. It certainly put paid to Boris’s dual nationality.

  3. Beautifully written piece. The only beautiful thing in our continuing horror story.

  4. I’m not sure that the Euro has been a success for Italy. I think an argument for it damaging the whole Mediterranean and putting it on it’s arse is easier. Why else are dual currency schemes being proposed by opposition in Italy now? Why does Germany do so well with the Euro, whilst Italy is maybe not a success? Fundamental problems with the EU project, issues that are going to surface – if I know anything in life it is always listen to the people who sell pizza, and also follow the money.

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