A little while ago Nick Hopkinson, Chairman of London4Europe, invited us to write a “Letter from Florence”, following our presence in a protest there to coincide with Theresa May’s speech on 22nd September. As the content goes beyond referring to events in Florence, I have, instead, called in “Letter from Tuscany”, the region of which Florence is the capital city. Here is the letter:
A Letter from Tuscany
At last the devastating drought that has hit farmers in this part of Italy has broken. But the three mainstays of the local economy have all suffered. Wine may be of good quality but the amount now maturing in the cellars is small; the sheep have eaten much of the hay stored for the coming winter; and the olive harvest will be minimal.
This is a local disaster caused by nature, given a helping hand by human-induced climate change. Let’s hope that next year will be more benign.
We and many of the 26,000 British citizens living in Italy are much more concerned about the extreme political drought in Britain which is allowing a fundamental change in the country’s relationship with mainland Europe to be shaped largely by extremists with no qualms about leaving with no agreement. The outcome could damage not just us but also the 600,000 Italians who, like so many other fellow Europeans, have made Britain their home.
The whole idea that Britain should find itself engaged in a deeply self-harming divorce process with the other 27 European Union member countries is quite surreal, given that we have never had any major dispute with them.
We worry that “the will of the people” is being interpreted by the government as a license to pursue any model of brexit, even when this is deeply damaging to the livelihoods of British citizens. It is ludicrous that the most important political decision in our lifetime is being steered by a minority government that has committed £1 billion of public money to buy the support of a minor party to ensure its own survival and its ability to pull Britain out of Europe.
The government claims to be responding to “leave” voters’ intentions to “reclaim sovereignty” and “restore democracy”, but, contradicting its own declared intent, goes to court – twice – to challenge parliament’s authority in the process, minimises meaningful parliamentary debate on the issue, muzzles its MPs by imposing 3-line whips and then, in its party conference, steers the discussions away from brexit. It has dismissed the preferences of the UK’s devolved governments and of the young people who will have to pick up the tab even though they voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe. To make matters worse, May has embarked prematurely on a negotiation process with the European Union without having any vision of attainable goals – a situation made all the more confusing by deep divisions in her party, mainly driven by the rivalrous personal ambitions of cabinet ministers.
The government’s stumbling approach to negotiations has already knocked almost 20% off the value of our Pound, pushed inflation up to almost 3%, spurred a rise in private indebtedness, driven down business confidence, led many firms to relocate their head offices out of the UK, contributed to the collapse of Monarch Airways, and forced the navy to start selling its ships. Unless drastic changes in the government’s approach to brexit are quickly adopted, the UK is bound to be unable to raise the fiscal resources required to fund the ambitious livelihood improvement programmes that the electorate is now demanding.
We recently made two brexit-related trips to Florence in one week. The first was at the invitation of Jill Morris, the British Ambassador, to attend an update on Britain’s future relationship with Europe. The second was to join a protest, organised by British in Italy, timed to coincide with May’s visit to make a speech on her aspirations for the brexit process.
Our main impression from the meeting with the Ambassador was that most of the 40-odd guests, mostly British citizens resident in Italy, were perplexed about the UK’s handling of the brexit process and deeply anxious about possible negative impacts on their ability to continue to enjoy rights that they have acquired here as nationals of an EU member country. Jill and staff from the FCO and the Department for Exit provided an upbeat account of the negotiations, took copious notes, and then asked us to trust the UK government to make sure that any agreement would protect our rights and those of EU immigrants in Britain. I sensed that most of us felt that it was difficult to trust a government that is myopic, prone to U-turns, deeply divided ideologically and unable to define a feasible negotiating strategy.
Four days later, we donned our kilts to join about 100 British and Italian protesters, old and young, in a spacious “piazza” against the backdrop of the ornate façade of Santa Maria Novella. We were able to express our views, especially on the risk to peace in Europe posed by Britain’s intended withdrawal, to many journalists and TV crews who were enjoying the sunny day, waiting for May to arrive by the back door of an abandoned military barracks two hours late to speak about brexit. Apparently only 39 of 250 invited guests gave a positive RSVP.
Her speech was softer in tone than expected but patronising, calling for creativity – which she herself clearly lacks – in the negotiations.
Our overall take on the situation is that May wants – in vain – all the material benefits of EU membership as long as she can claim that she has taken Britain out of the Union. To pander to an illusion of renewed greatness, she is prepared to pay billions to Brussels and to sacrifice our seat at the table where Europe’s future will be shaped. By stretching the “implementation” period. she will prolong the uncertainties have already driven Britain into an economic nose-dive and international isolation.
In contrast, we see an opportunity for Corbyn and a united Labour government-in-waiting to engage in informal consultations with the European Commission that would not ex ante exclude the option of continued membership. Instead, Corbyn would make remaining in Europe conditional on assurances that his commitment to renationalisation of critical public utilities would be given strong EU backing. Labour could also offer to cooperate with EU members in levelling the immigration playing field through helping migrant source countries to free labour markets, set adequate minimum wages and upgrade social security systems so as the reduce the push factors now inducing migration to the UK.
For our part, we have started to harvest a drought-reduced olive crop.
Roberta joins me in sending you and London4Europe members best wishes,