Theresa May will get no sympathy for Brexit in Eurosceptic Italy

As her Europe speech nears, Florence is baffled as to why it is the stage for an internal British dispute gone awry. And a highly tedious one at that.

Theresa May’s trip to Florence this Friday will make for some nice images, but the beauty of Tuscany will hardly be enough to soothe her Brexit woes. The British prime minister will need more than a Baedeker to find a way of convincing Europeans that Britain is leaving the EU but not Europe, and that it is realistic about the process.

Just days ahead of her speech, British and Italian officials, diplomats, academics and experts attended the annual Pontignano conference, not far from Florence. The official topic was “Liberalism in crisis?”. Of course, Brexit loomed large. If the conversations I heard there are anything to go by, Britain has more, not less, worrying to do about how its strategies are perceived on the continent.

In Italy there is bafflement over what the UK wants to achieve, and how it plans to do it. Even Theresa May’s choice of Florence for her speech had some people scratching their heads – not least Italian officials working closely on EU matters. Official British explanations that Florence is a symbol of the “renaissance”, a “heart of Europe”, are met with sympathy, but hardly help to set a clear course for the serious matter of Brexit. Some took note, with a smile, that references to “century-old” links between Britain and “the city state” of Florence meant harking back to an era before Italy became a nation state.

Some conference participants speculated that May had set her sights on Florence for lack of another option. She couldn’t possibly have gone to Germany, as it’s in the midst of an election campaign; and travelling to France would be awkward on the eve of opposition demonstrations there. Nor could she easily travel to Brussels to deliver a speech on Brexit and Europe – especially not in front of the European parliament. “That would mean throwing herself into the lions’ den,” one Italian told me.

To be sure, the Florence speech is awaited with a good amount of curiosity (although its announcement hardly made headlines in Italy). Italians are happy for the attention, and they don’t need an invocation of A Room With a View to know how much the British can love Italy’s culture, landscape, food and style. More importantly, Italy wants to matter on the European scene, and it can at times be frustrated by the attitude of larger players. With Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel wanting to turbo-charge the Franco-German “engine” within the EU, Italy’s worry is that it risks looking even more like a lesser cousin.

It’s clear Britain is “desperate” (as one British participant told me) to deepen bilateral discussions with separate EU member states these days. That’s to try to blunt the shock of Brexit, and also discreetly look for wedge issues in the negotiations. But so far there’s been no sign of cracks in European unity. Nor is May’s visit intended as a bilateral one – the Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, isn’t slated to attend.

Italy may not be as much of a heavyweight in Europe as it would like, but its politics matter immensely: elections are expected early next year, and populism is on the rise, with the anti-establishment and anti-immigrant Five Star movement leading in the polls. Not only that, but Silvio Berlusconi is rearing his head again, promising to lead Forza Italia at the next election. Migration is the single most important item being debated, and the centre-left government has gone to great lengths to try to curtail migrant arrivals from across the Mediterranean – even making highly controversial deals with Libyan militias.

Euroscepticism has grown strongly. In a traditionally fervently pro-EU country (partly because Europe was seen as a protection against the corruption of its own political class), the public mood has turned sour on the European project, mostly as a result of the eurozone crisis. None of this means an exit is being contemplated, however. If anything, a referendum held last year on constitutional reform plans showed how costly the experiment could be (the then-prime minister, Matteo Renzi, had to resign). Nor do most observers expect Five Star to reach a point where it could form a government: the consensus among the mainstream parties is to keep it safely out. Still Italy offers a worrying contrast to the more upbeat mood elsewhere in Europe.

Moreover, the stakes for Italy in the Brexit negotiations are relatively high. Unemployment has pushed many of its young people to seek jobs in the UK in recent years. Italy is adamant that the EU must not end up with a large financial gap as a result of Britain’s departure. There are also tentative bilateral talks with the UK on security and defence cooperation. But no one should be under the illusion that Italy intends to break ranks in the Brexit talks: its interests lie in EU solidarity.

The expectation among Italian officials is that May’s speech will be “positive” and steer clear of radical Brexit ideology. But Boris Johnson’s antics haven’t gone unnoticed – nor been much of a surprise. After all, he made his “prosecco” comments while attending the Pontignano conference last year. Now, he’s on manoeuvres against May. Will Florence be her answer? Tuscany’s soft rolling hills and mesmerising cultural heritage make for a strange backdrop against which to settle British political scores, but that is how Brexit is mostly viewed in Italy: an internal British dispute gone awry, which, tediously, everyone now has to deal with.

If there’s one unanimous hope I heard from Italian participants in Pontignano, it’s that somehow Brexit might yet be stopped. The British speakers responded that was unlikely. One prominent Italian commentator captured the mood of regret this way: “To be alone in 1940 among the enemy was heroic, to be alone in 2017 among friends is absurd.” May will be visiting a country that sees Britain as a friend, but that, like others in Europe, increasingly struggles to understand its friend.