Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Letta is OK but the City Remains Sceptical
La Stampa - July 21, 2013

There is nothing that we sceptical, suspicious, sometimes rather insular Brits like more than when someone comes to visit us and speaks our language—in more ways than one. That was certainly the case with President Enrico Letta and his Grand Tour this week of London institutions, from 10 Downing Street, to the international media such as the Financial Times and The Economist, to City investors and financial analysts, to intellectuals and opinion-formers.

For after all, he seemed just like one of us, with his excellent English, his elegant manners and his free-market ideas. His masterstroke, in the capital city that recently saw the funeral rites for Margaret Thatcher, was to announce to us his plan for privatization of public assets in the autumn. If one thing could make all his pledges to cut Italy’s public debt, reform its politics and liberalise its economy sound real to hard-bitten City financiers, it was a privatization plan.

Yet let us not get too dreamy-eyed. For another British characteristic is that we do watch the international news, especially by reading the FT. This meant that behind the warm reception (amid our unusual summer heatwave) and the optimistic smiles from all who greeted him lay also a lot of sceptical minds. Their attention was caught especially by the strange case of Alma Shalabayeva.

Kazakhstan cast a shadow over the Letta visit to London, far more than did the primitive, uncivilized behaviour of Roberto Calderoli. Neither did Italy’s international image any good, but virtually no one in London has heard of Calderoli, and those who know anything think the Lega Nord is an unpleasant irrelevancy. No one has heard of Mrs Shalabayeva and her husband Mukhtar Ablyazov either, but their story still resonated.

“Extraordinary rendition”, as the United Nations Office for Human Rights called their deportation, is a phrase that hurts in London, as we believe that our government has been involved in some illegal extraordinary renditions during the past decade’s American-led “war on terror”. But we also have a particularly strong belief in the rule of law, and in the importance of rights of political asylum.

Moreover, a long British story about a deportation, of a Jordanian militant cleric called Abu Qatada, has just recently come to an end after more than a decade of legal struggles to be able to deport him to face trial in Jordan. If it took us a decade to get the right to deport Abu Qatada, people ask in London, how on earth could the Italian police deport Mrs Shalabayeva and her daughter within two days, without any right of appeal?

The Kazakh case is pleasing, however, to some British Eurosceptics as it confirms one of their most strongly held beliefs, namely that the trouble with the European Union is that it is only we British that actually obey the rules, while everyone else ignores them. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true, nor that the rules at issue here are human rights laws and UN conventions, rather than anything to do with the EU. British Eurosceptics like their beliefs to be reinforced.

Yet this wasn’t the main reason why the Kazakh case overshadowed President Letta’s otherwise successful visit. That main reason was that, for all those people paying attention to Italy’s government, the Kazakh case provided evidence that despite the brave agenda and confident promises being made, neither the institutions of government nor the coalition is now any more functional, reliable or accountable than before.

Italian diplomacy has had a bad year: the mishandling of the mariners’ case in India tarnished the image of the Monti government for competence. Now the Kazakh case has suggested that even when an internationally admired person such as Emma Bonino is foreign minister, she is not really in charge or influential. That the minister in charge of the deportation at the Interior ministry was Silvio Berlusconi’s man did not go unnoticed—especially as one of President Letta’s messages, at least implicitly, was that the days when Italy’s image would be shaped by Berlusconi had passed.

Behind the shadows, therefore, British warm approval for President Letta was tinged with sympathy and backed by scepticism. On the economy and especially the euro, that scepticism was of an understanding sort: the Brits know that Italy’s room for manoeuvre is limited and that all hope rests on some change of German policy after the September elections, about which no one can be sure.

But on the stability of the government, and its ability to carry out the impressive and reassuring programme laid out by President Letta, the London scepticism was more profound. We know he means what he said, and we liked what we heard. We just doubt he will be able to do what he said. Nevertheless, for once we do hope that we will be proved wrong. 


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