“But why?” It is almost always the first question we are asked whenever Brexit comes up in conversation, no matter how tangentially. It is asked with neither rancour nor mockery, but with dismay, incomprehension and with disappointment. For even in Italy, where politics have recently taken an alarming lurch to the right and the current coalition of populist parties are going head to head with Brussels on a range of issues (chiefly migration policy and the budget) the UK’s imminent departure from the EU is seen as a profoundly mis-guided and retrograde step and as the loss of a close and valued friend.
Our bank manager and the clerk in the post office, the women in the town hall who handled our residency application, Mr Blue-Shirt’s barber and the bloke in his favourite tool shop, the chaps in the vehicle licensing office who helped us get our Italian driving licences, my colleagues and the teenagers and managers I teach. Even just the people in the village who hear our English voices or spot our English number plates. As if we are a proxy for the country that they have been watching blunder around in circles from failed negotiation to failed vote and back again in its still fruitless search for a satisfactory means of departure from the organisation that has shaped our lives for more than a generation.
We seldom enter into lengthy explanations, political debate or history lessons. It’s not really what people are interested in, I don’t think. It’s both much bigger and much simpler than that. It seems, rather, that all these people are simply seeking some kind of reassurance that ‘it’s nothing personal’. “We really don’t know,” we reply with a helpless shrug. “We don’t understand it either. It’s madness. And very, very sad.” Heads are shaken, sympathetic looks exchanged. “In our opinion it’s a huge mistake. But at least we have found a way to Remain (everyone knows the terminology). We are here!” A rueful smile and perhaps a tinge of comfort to find that ‘it’s not you, it’s us’, and with that, the conversation moves on.
Only it’s not ‘us’ – Mr Blue-Shirt and me – at all. Both committed Remainers, we have spent almost as much of our adult lives in Europe – in mainland Europe, I mean – as we have in the UK. Through living in in Belgium, France and Germany as well as Italy (all founding members of the European Community, of course) we have long been aware that the EU means so much more than trade or travel, budgets or bureaucracy. For years it has been clear to us that the bonds the EU has forged between nations that had spent centuries at war have played a decisive role in ensuring that not only could it never happen again, but that they have helped make Europe a global power in its own right. Nations that had long been bitter enemies, that had repeatedly been left ravaged and impoverished by conflict and whose borders had been fought over time and time again, have for over sixty years been united in the pursuit of the common goals of peace, prosperity and democracy thanks to the web of co-operation and reciprocity it has woven over the years. So despite the EU’s acknowledged shortcomings we firmly believe they pale into insignificance when compared with the inestimably wider benefits the Union brings – and are certainly infinitely preferable to the hubristic, isolationist alternative that is fast approaching.
Now, I realise that some may find this a somewhat romantic view, but we have found it reflected back at us to a greater or lesser extent in nearly all of our ‘why?’ conversations. Take the one we had at the town hall last spring. On this occasion we were there to find out what paperwork was required to obtain the health cover we needed to secure residency. While the woman dealing with us was on the phone to the health authority, the colleague she had waved into her cramped and gloomy office to help her get us out of our latest blind alley took up the baton. “So what’s this Brexit thing all about, then?” he asked a little more combatively than most. We took a breath, preparing to respond as we had done so many times before. “Why?” he continued before we could get a word out. “Why? When thousands of your forces died to liberate us from fascism, why do you want to leave the body that came out of that victory and that has made war unthinkable, the body that Churchill dreamt of?” He paused and swallowed hard. “Churchill! Don’t you British know that?!” This was no rheumy-eyed, nostalgic old soldier either, but a man in his forties with no direct experience of those troubled times. Yet for someone whose country had within living memory been devastated by occupation, civil war and dictatorship, there was nothing remotely romantic about over half a century of peace, prosperity and democracy.
His passion and his concern deserved an answer and so we did our best to reassure him that we not only shared his views but also understood why he held them. And to explain that like him, we saw being part of Europe as expression of sovereignty, not its abandonment; an expression of solidarity not capitulation; and of co-operation, not competition; of the belief that when one member prospers, all prosper.
There was so much more we could have said, of course, about free movement, trade, finance, security, science, medicine, education, social justice, as well as all the geo-politics. So many more reasons we could have given him for our deeply-held desire to remain in the EU and our belief in it as a force for good, but his colleague had finished her call and was impatient to get on with her day. So once she had passed on the information she had been given, we merely shook his hand and took our leave, walking from the town hall beneath the twin flags of the Italian Republic and the European Union that fluttered proudly from the balcony.