Watching Brexit From Sicily

It has been curious to see Brexit unfold, from southern Sicily. In Noto, a stunning Baroque town, albeit rather gypsy-ridden, our queries to waiters last Friday morning at 8AM were met with befuddlement. Similarly, the tourist information lady, glancing at her purple nails, denied all knowledge of the EU but grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of a mayoral election in the next village. Saturday morning, at Caffe Sicilia, the best gelato/sweet shop in Sicily, the cosmopolitan staff were veering between despair & resignation. But by Saturday night, in Ortygia, with its marina of large yachts, one could pick up snippets of conversation amongst hordes of Milanese businessmen. The bronzed thirty-something French couples at dinner were chatting about Londres, the tragedy of the young, in between mouthfuls of linguini con ricci. Even the Gazzeta Dello Sport, Italy’s version of a serious pink broadsheet, was leading with analysis of Brexit.

The FB/Twitter hand-wringing & hysterical calls for a second referendum seem, besides their implied disrespect towards the 52% that voted to exit, to focus far too much on impact on the UK. Granted, the metropolitan elite in London have lost the warm & fuzzy feeling of being ‘part of Europe’; while a long-planned move to the Costa(s) or Puglia might have to be re-thought. Science & culture will undoubtedly suffer through loss of funding, and Cornwall apparently misses its EU cash infusions (I thought only Third-World Countries got development aid?). Still, the British electorate, whether Remain or Leave, may ruefully appreciate the possibility of Britain finally being rid of loathsome financiers as banks choose to migrate operations into the EU.

That aside, I’m not sure how anyone can have any clear view on what will happen finally, given that we seem to be stuck at the starting-block: the gun has been fired, but no one is in a rush to trigger Article 50. It would appear, until that is done, the entire question remains in limbo – hostage to the fascinating ritual fratricide of the Tories & the (mostly irrelevant) idiocy of Labour. A deux ex machina to move things along can perhaps arrive via a second referendum, court challenge, or HM addressing the nation as she memorably (if inadvertently) did on the occasion of the Chinese Premier’s visit.

But that’s the UK side. What the markets are telling us though, is that most of the worry, at a geopolitical level, is for the EU itself. European banks have taken a beating in anticipation.

Centripetal forces continue to imperil an incomplete project that only lurches forward through increasingly frequent existential crises. I can see a fork in the road. On one hand, the core EU countries can double down on unification : try to push the ball forward on fiscal & banking union, now that the tenacious objections from London have (presumably) been silenced. Yet, my suspicion is that even within the core EU, both leadership & electorate, there is little consensus on increased centralisation, consequent loss of sovereignty, erosion of  democratic accountability, and the fiscal transfers that would be needed to overcome deep economic imbalances.

The other, more likely, possibility is that the noise around Brexit, and the more urgent nationalist movements in Italy, France, even Germany, will further hamper the move towards federalism and induce more paralysis. Although the Spanish election seems to have gone okay this weekend, Italy remains the one to watch: its banks are undercapitalised, while Renzi has been a disappointment. A referendum this October looks eerily like the UK one, a protest opportunity for an alienated electorate combined with a promise from Renzi that he will resign if he loses. Recently, voters, disgusted with corruption, have elected mayors in Turin & Rome from Beppe Grillo’s insurrectionist/anti-Euro Five Star movement. In the background Umberto Bossi of the secessionist Northern League watches events calmly, puffing on a cheap Toscano cigar.

Yet the elephant in the room, even if the Remain campaign sort of politely ignored it, is the clear inability of the EU to control its external border. Sicily remains on the front line, though the scenes of 2 years ago have been better managed by Italian authorities – back then there were hundreds of migrants sleeping under the sun in Catania’s port and we were shown the remains of a wrecked migrant boat in Siracusa’s coast guard station. Tourism is the main earner here in the south, and efforts have been made to not present tourists with scenes of chaos. Yet one need only go into the outskirts of certain towns here or talk to the locals to see the social stress induced by large-scale migration into an economy long plagued with unemployment. And of course, many migrants have rapidly moved up the Italian penninsula, arguably with support of local Mafias, and onwards to Europe. It is fear of this ‘Other’, to use the term fashionable in London’s cultural/academic circuit, rather than the apocryphal Polish plumber commonly cited in the Brexit debate, or the nuances of gross vs net transfers to the EU, that probably did most to influence the voters in Hull and Huddersfield.

Unfortunately, the migration problem appears insoluble, in the short-term. To a certain extent, it is the result of an enthusiastically interventionist policy, on supposed ‘humanitarian’ grounds, in N Africa (Libya). Yet a pragmatic non-intervention (Syria) hasn’t worked well either. If one is monadically pre-disposed, one can plausibly link the migration problem to water scarcity, climate change, flawed integration policies (France), excessively permissive multiculturalism (London), or of course, the original sin of France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Ironically, the relatively benign Italian colonialists of Eritrea & Libya are reaping the bitterest fruit at the moment.

In summary, we are probably seeing the clash of several inconsistent pressures, playing out on the European stage. For the UK: a long-term desire to benefit from the 500m strong common market, selling them services (financial and otherwise), while assiduously avoiding many of the associated constraints and obligations. For the Leave camp as a whole: an incoherent mishmash of free trade, buoyant house prices, unfettered finance, reasonably open borders that somehow manage to keep out said Others (but possibly let in Polish builders who, after all, do a rather good job). For many Labour voters and so-called progressives: an equally incoherent, if less well articulated (they weren’t at Eton after all), shibboleth of anti-capitalism and workers’ rights (except when said workers vote the wrong way in an otherwise correctly-constituted electoral process).

And of course, the EU continues to embody a great mass of inconsistencies that are unlikely to be resolved before it is torn into pieces. However – the EU, as envisioned by Monnet, Adenauer, Schuman, and de Gasperi, was always a work-in-progress, a bureaucratic capolavoro that would, by concrete steps, each individually boring and unimpressive, achieve a de facto union. Brussels, having neither the power of autocracy nor the fiscal clout of a modern nation, is reduced to governing via regulation. It must impose a degree of uniformity across the bloc – in the hope that years of dirigisme may, perhaps, create a political unity out of centuries-old plurality.

It is also natural that the path is littered with failures and fudges.  As another great European – whose mix of idealism and brutal pragmatism would be useful today – said: ‘Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best.‘ (Bismarck)

In any case, the step-by-step approach didn’t reckon with the pace of events post-2008, that have often rumbled the EU into action. Moreover, the project is built on a certain foundation of sand: one need only spend time travelling through Italy to see the deep antipathy & distrust that separates North & South – a mirror of the EU’s own divisions. While many young London-based Brits might see themselves as European, and plenty of young Italians have decamped to London in search of opportunity, it’s not at all obvious that institutionally or culturally, the average Sicilian is particularly keen on the promises of enlightened rule from Brussels. Possibly rightly, he has internalised Don Fabrizio Salina’s recollections on Sicily’s 2,500-year history as a colony.

All the punditry notwithstanding, no one is sure how this will ultimately play out, and most likely we will all become bored with it within the next few days – never mind 2019, the presumptive end of the Article 50 timeline. But we can take great comfort that the UK’s negotiating team, and such Anglophiles as still remain in Brussels, will have ample guidance in back catalogues of Fawlty Towers & Yes Minister !

Pronounce to rhyme with ‘Basil’: BREXXX-IT !!!

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