Oh Britannia, you left us, but don’t know where you are going

PUBLISHED: 07:00 15 January 2018

Photo: The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Photo: The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Print Collector

Amidst the chaos of Brexit comes clarity from afar. Italian journalist and Anglophile PAOLA PEDUZZI provides a plaintive view of her beloved UK

As Brexit edges closer, my overwhelming feeling is one of sadness. I love Britain. I always have. I hope I always will.

But this sadness stems not just from what I fear Europe is losing but also because of what Brexit says about the face Britain is showing to us Europeans and to the world. So the love is weakening. And that saddens me even more.

I am as big an Anglophile as you are likely to find in Italy or any other EU country. I listen to English music, read English books, study British history, follow British culture. I visit whenever I can. I still read British newspapers and magazines avidly but, ever since the Brexit referendum, what I read makes my feelings oscillate between sadness, anger and boredom.

The New European helps a little but it cannot and does not compensate for the realities – British citizens voted to leave 18 months ago and a real thought through plan for Brexit is still nowhere to be seen. The Tory Party seems like an argumentative, hopeless band of brothers, trying to undermine their own Prime Minister without having any viable alternative.

The Labour Party at times seems willing to figure out a way to achieve a softer Brexit but they are scared to admit the logic of all their criticisms of the Government.

As Jeremy Corbyn struggles to shake off his outmoded belief that Europe is a rich man’s plot against the poor, centrists and moderates are fighting to create an effective anti-Brexit movement, but ancient grudges, newer ambitions and a lack of organisation seem to undermine this effort.

Economically, Britain may not yet have collapsed, but the trends of downward growth are clear. At the same time, despite the procession of the Brexit talks to the next stage, there is still much uncertainty.

I don’t want to sound catastrophic but I’m Italian, I live in southern Europe and I know what slow growth, recession and political chaos look like. While nobody can say for sure that the UK is going to end up mired in the kind of instability we Italians experienced many times in the recent past – today the future looks brighter – I believe that the strength of the British model has been seriously damaged by Brexit.

Ever since the referendum, whenever I talk to people in Britain – experts, commentators or friends – and I ask: “what’s wrong with your country?”, their answer is often along the following lines: we are a country doomed to decline, our politicians are trying to oppose this decline with “the politics of nostalgia” and this is leading us to a “lost decade”.

The funny thing is that often I get those lines irrespective of whether I am talking to a Brexiteer or a Remainer. Brexiteers will often follow up by saying that the main reason for this collapse is the European Union representatives who are bullying London and making it difficult for Britain to leave the EU, and this will lead to bad consequences for Europeans too.

My answer is that Article 50 was precisely about making it hard for any state to leave, and Brussels is simply playing by the rules that were accepted also by the UK from the beginning. But logic and fact seem absent from much of the debate and that too feels very un-British to an Italian like me.

Surely even the most ardent Brexiteers must admit that despite the deal reached last month, the real hard work lies ahead. And that some of the economic decline set out in the Budget in the autumn is related to Brexit. In the next stage, neither London nor Brussels will be willing to give a chance for the other side to strike a deal it may consider favourable.

Even if I think that if “it’s your Brexit, you fix it!” – that British citizens made their choice and now have to live with the repercussions – I can’t understand how a population culturally devoted to pragmatism, common sense, optimism and anti-declinism, living in a country that for centuries has inspired the whole world, and especially continental Europe, can now throw away such an enormous treasure. Even worse is how so many appear no longer to be interested in the real impact of Brexit and instead look only for the things that confirm that they already believe.

I really struggle to understand you, Britannia – and maybe deep in my heart I don’t want to understand – because I’m profoundly convinced that what matters is the cultural strength of a country, its values, its ways to approach not just geopolitics but life in general. And you can’t lose all of that heritage in 18 months. Surely. Can you?

But still, nobody is giving me an explanation, nobody is articulating a single hope-inspiring thought, let alone certainty for the future. What I am witnessing is just sad eyes and dark forecasts and therefore my once firm belief in the power of the Anglo-Saxon culture is starting to weaken.

Yet I am not prepared to consider Britain as a lost country. I think that your exceptionalism is not a perishable value but an enduring trait, even when you decided to leave our beloved European Union without knowing where you wanted to go.

I further believe that we Europeans must know that without Britain we won’t be better, because all the ideas, the inspirations, the courage you have shown in the past are more needed than ever. As Emmanuel Macron said: “The doors of Europe are always open, and I would add that our hearts are open too.”

Hubris and pride often wreck marriages and great loves, and sometimes you realise at the end of a divorce that many of your problems had nothing to do with your marriage or your spouse. With Brexit, hubris and pride could be dangerous, and may take you over the cliff to decline and even oblivion. But we still love Britain. Well, I certainly do. I hope I always will.

• Paola Peduzzi is the foreign editor at Il Foglio, an Italian newspaper

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