Italy shows May how to stand up to Brussels

It seems hard to imagine, but the biggest headache for Brussels at the moment is not the independently minded, powerful British but the normally passive Italians. Theresa May's strategy was simply to avoid rocking the EU's boat, and the Brussels bureaucrats have obliged by taking her for a ride

Tim Hedges
On 21 November 2018 14:31

There is a wealth of stories on how difficult it is to explain cricket to a foreigner, but that problem pales before explaining our other great eccentricity, Brexit.

Personally, I like both. Anyway, I was talking Brexit with an educated young Italian woman, when to my surprise I suddenly realised she had grasped it.

‘So what you are saying is that the people understood what they wanted but the government could not understand the people. They are carciofi - artichokes.’

In Italy many insults, and many sex acts, normal and abnormal, are described in the form of vegetables. An artichoke is a knucklehead, someone with no understanding. I find it elegant, comforting even, rather than expressing myself in the aggressive ‘what part of Leave don’t you understand?’ to think of Mrs. May’s cabinet as artichokes.

The reason the woman found it so easy to grasp is that this is how Italian governments have treated the people pretty well since the war: Craxi, Prodi, Berlusconi, Monti, artichokes to a man. They have got to the pinnacle of politics and not taken a moment out to wonder what the people want of them.

Now, however, Italy has a different government, one which has found out what the people want from them and set out a plan to deliver it. A non-artichoke government or, to use another pleasing expression, one with salt in its pumpkin.

Italy, for example, has never had unemployment benefit. Just think of that: you lose your job (and in Italy unemployment is nearly three times what it is in Britain) and that’s it, you have no income at all unless your employer has taken out an insurance policy for you; and that anyway is modest and tides you over for about six months.

And the people want a simplified tax structure and they want something done about immigration. And the government made its plans and drew up its budget and Europe said no, you can’t do what you were elected to do.

And this is where the Italian government differs from the British one. When an expensively suited eurocrat says Article that and Section this means you can’t do it, the Italians have not rolled over and agreed whatever was dished out, but stood to their guns and defended their position.

It seems hard to imagine, but the biggest headache for Brussels at the moment is not the independently minded, powerful British but the normally passive Italians. The British politicians and civil servants seem happy, instead of negotiating, to accept a recitation from Brussels of what the rulebook says.

In Europe-wide terms this seems a bit of a shame. Several European nations had been looking carefully at what had been going on in Britain. Would life outside the EU be possible? What would happen if Britain had prospered? Would there be some sharing of the European ‘four freedoms’, such that you could opt into a part of it, but not into another part: an ‘à la carte’ Europe? Would the British lead the way out of this monstrous superstate?

Now we see that Britain’s team was simply scared of rocking the boat, all this has gone. M. Barnier’s first and foremost instruction from Brussels was to make it look very unpleasant to leave. Barnier and Juncker have won, and won big. Eurosceptics on mainland Europe now have only Italy’s example to watch.

Let us hope Messrs. Conte, Salvini and Di Maio don’t buckle at the first hurdle. Because if Junker and Selmayr can hand over an undefeated Europe to their successors, Brussels will have the confidence to complete the European story, the fiscal controls, the army, the lot. Already Macron has proposed some new Eurozone tax and subsidy plan which the ailing Merkel is giving in to.

And the undefeated Eurocracy won’t worry about what the people want. They will be worse than unthinking carciofi, they will be, as another friend said, ‘cetrioloni’ - big cucumbers.

They will be the world’s first bureaucratic dictatorship.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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