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Italy wakes up to threat of British departure

Italy wakes up to threat of British departure

Idea of Europe ingrained in body politic

by Antonio Armellini in Rome

Wed 22 Jun 2016

Italy is belatedly waking up to the notion that 'Brexit' could be for real. (I however continue to place my faith in the bookmakers and hope that sanity will prevail tomorrow). Until a few weeks ago, Italians showed a mixture of bewilderment and disbelief at what appeared to be another scarcely comprehensible example of British eccentricity. But the preoccupation has gained ground that the UK might actually leave the European Union, causing many problems for Italy.

The idea of Europe is ingrained in the Italian body politic. Unlike the British, we do not strive to define our identity in isolation. Rather, for historical and psychological reasons, we seek to be part of a wider plan from which to derive recognition and authority.

Brexit not only would alter the EU’s geopolitical balance, but also could lay bare its inability to build a credible alternative to the nation state. The risk of further opt-outs and referendums would be real. There is no possibility of implementing schemes, such as going back to the original six founding states as a renewed hard-core of political integration.

Euroscepticism has been on the rise in Italy as in most other European countries. The weekend Italian mayoral elections showed again the challenge to the authority of established parties. Yet Italy still sees its future as part of a politically integrated Europe. The UK referendum, as well as other phenomena like the migrant crisis, has shown how threadbare that concept is. Italians are starting to realise they might be in for a very painful rethink.

Migration is one area that would be deeply affected if the UK left the EU. More than 300,000 Italians are officially resident in the UK. They would face some new hitches, such as obtaining a residence permit and getting through passport control and customs. No great matter; quite a few could decide to make their life easier by applying for British citizenship.

Another 300,000 or so are not officially resident. They are mostly very young, come to learn the language and decide to stay on for a bit, picking up often horribly underpaid jobs they would never dream of doing at home. The experience helps to turn them into responsible adults (with some English) with a better understanding of the ways of the world. When they go back (as they do), they spread their new knowledge around their friends in the small provincial circles they come from, giving a necessary boost to internationalisation of Italian society.

Thanks to these boys and girls, London has become one of the world’s most vibrant and colourful cities. Were these young Italians (and other Europeans) to leave, it might easily drift back to the greyness of yore. But that would not be an Italian problem.

As far as pecuniary matters are concerned, the Italian business and financial system is closely connected to the City, and the Milan bourse has become part of the London stock exchange. The loss of ‘passporting rights’ following Brexit would make life more complicated and increase both costs and bureaucracy. A growing number of Italian companies look at the UK as a business-friendly investment destination with little red tape, and would be forced to reconsider their plans. Having to relocate to Paris or Frankfurt (very few, alas, would opt for Milan) would be an additional drawback.

In all these areas, the costs and inconveniences – for example, splitting the single market – would be much greater for the British. But Italians are starting to see that the burdens would be higher than anticipated for them as well.

Antonio Armellini was Italian Ambassador to India between 2004 and 2008. He is a Member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali, and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

This is No.99c in the series.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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