Farewell to the mountains: in the time of covid-19 and Brexit the letter of an Italian in London.
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
There is a famous piece of Italian literature, within a passage from Alessandro Manzoni's novel "I Promessi Sposi" (in English, The Betrothed), in which the main character addresses a poetic goodbye to his motherland. In Italy that very passage is unquestionably taught in every school and known as "Addio ai monti" (Farewell to the mountains). That idyllic image carried away through the waters of the lake of Lecco, embraced, as it was back then, by the beautiful mounts belonging to the Italian Alps. Those mounts represented for Renzo (the main male character) all the certainties that he had, certainties that he decided to leave behind in search of love and adventure. This decision will ultimately define not only his destiny but also the man that Renzo will have become in order to overcome foreign enemies, pest pandemics, his demons and ultimately finding his love, and himself.
Centuries away from Manzoni's literary endeavours (and in a much more modest fashion) I found myself leaving Italy, my home country, in search for a brighter future and for my path in life, which I was sure I couldn't fulfil nor trace in my native land, as Italy is not only the most beautiful country in the world but also the most muddled by its glorious past. A country that once gave birth to modern civilisation and yet today struggles to move forward as a united nation. Ultimately, and with most surprise, I ended up not only leaving Italy but also 'Europe'. In fact, just a couple of weeks after I moved to my beloved new hometown that is London, Brexit happened, with the UK starting to prepare for leaving the EU through negotiations (and polemic argumentations), many of which are still to resolve.
Regardless of what the future will bring us, I think that Brexit is just a sad event declaring the failure of an open society and of a project still in its infancy, which pointed at uniting a whole continent for the common good. Unfortunately, Europe not only hasn't managed to find an equilibrium but is as unbalanced as ever, with Germany ruthlessly ruling EU's hegemony, France all too busy dealing with its internal politics, and the southern states of the Union lacking authentic leadership and poise sufficient to speak up at the negotiation tables of Brussels. On the other side of Dover's Channel, the UK took a bold decision, for leaving Europe and the benefits of being a prominent member of such a rich economic area is not easy at all. However, I think that there's a brighter future ahead for the UK, away from Europe, as an independent. A future that suits the history of a country that since its infancy has revolutionised the way that people think, act and speak.
This being said, I am not here to side with Europe nor the United Kingdom, for in every divorce neither party is absolutely right, (or wrong) and the truth is that everyone shares the burden and the glory – if in terms of glory we may speak in this case. What I will do, however, is report my belief of a brighter future for the UK and my view on the decayed leadership leading Europe into weel-chartered dangerous waters, now even more so after the breakout of covid-19.
The UK leaves the EU
When I first decided to move to London, although the city gave origin to many of my heroes and artistic movements that I cherish, I was all but looking forward to it. With the typical presumptions of a well nurtured Italian, my view of London was of a gloomy and wet city where the food is not great and where everything is expensive. Fast forward to a few months, and except the cost of living (which is definitely high), I then found myself spectacularly and gladly wrong.
London, to me, is the most fantastic city in the world. Samuel Johnson said that when you are tired of London, you are tired of life, and that is nothing but true. London is just the whole world at scale, where everyone and everything may find a place to be. A city that gave me everything I worked hard for, just and marvellous, which I also found to be the case in other parts of the UK. Travelling around this country, I discovered its beauty and glory. Somerset's countryside, just as beautiful as the Tuscan one where I came from, the white shores of Cornwall, the forests and Isles of Scotland, and more. However, this whole adventurous discovery of mine happened while having the certainty that the UK will leave the European Union at some point.
The 23rd of June 2016, I woke up with the breaking news. Brexit! All absolutely disarming for me as I arrived in the UK to work for a new job just a few weeks before and now I found myself wondering what would have happened to me and everyone else. Fate wanted that it all worked out fine, or at least it looks like it after four years of debates, wrong speculations and still ongoing negotiations. One thing is sure to me, and that is that there's undoubtedly a brighter future for the UK waiting ahead. On the contrary, I am not so sure about Europe, which day after day is entering a late Roman Empire phase.
To name just a few factors that will support a victorious departure for the UK, the country comprises about 65 million people and the most prominent national financial system in the world for a single country, both in relative and absolute terms. Has its domestic currency, and natural resources, starting from energy all the way to maritime and farming and agricultural, prime skilled labour of national AND foreign derivation, the best educational system in the western world, common law, just two main political parties, tied commercial relationships with all the major economies outside Europe thanks to its heritage, once being the greatest empire in history.
On the opposite shore from Dover, Europe makes arguably the most significant economic area in the world. However, with about 500 million people, Europe has a fragmented fiscal and financial system, doesn't have sufficient energy resources to sustain its needs, its immigration is mostly dragging resources instead of creating new ones and the integration of immigrants into European society is very poor, the education systems are archaic, the law changes country-by-country and all the public administration tends to be byzantine and inefficient, political parties are too many and indecisive, politics itself is seen as a personal business career rather than a service rendered for the greater good.
The biggest challenge that the UK faces is common to the EU, though, and that is leadership. For without a proper captain, even the best vessel will eventually find the rocks. On the one side, Boris Johnson may be disliked as much as praised but certainly comes well prepared for his current role as PM. An Oxford scholar and grad that rose in the ranks becoming Mayor of London at first, Minister of Foreign Affairs and ultimately Prime Minister. As PM, Boris Johnson's role comes during a perilous moment but sided by a clear plan to relaunch the UK and its real economy, all with the support of the people. We all hope for him to do a great job. On the other side, Europe seems to be in more severe trouble: Brussels, the political capital, is as distant as the Moon may be from the rest of the Union's states. All the European States among the world's top 10 countries by GDP are weakening and suffering on various fronts. Germany has endured unsustainable immigration, and the almost quasi-collapse of Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, its two leading banks, Italy is in a constant political turmoil and now also economic meltdown due to coronavirus lockdown, and in France, Macron, meant to be the new paladin of European Union, is entirely absorbed by his internal battles aimed to establish his consensus lost after trying to reform a country that is not up for change.
Coronavirus takes the front of the stage
However, the groundbreaking shock of the whole UK/EU saga is reaching a crescendo with the outbreak of coronavirus, which to me looks like the biggest challenge to globalisation that we have seen since 9/11. Now, after weeks of lockdown, terabits of streaming content downloaded, tons of grocery stockpiled, billions of economic losses and, above all, thousands of lives taken by this new and unforeseen enemy, the world is trying to find itself anew. In the words of the late T. S. Eliot, hopefully we will arrive where it all started, and we will know that place for the first time.
One thing is for sure: we have become too complacent. Everything was easier than ever before, but for so long we almost completely forgot it. If there's any silver lining in this tragic pandemic, it is that we will for sure appreciate more what we have. On the other hand, the dark shadows looming at the end of this tunnel are nothing but tall walls. For covid-19 proved the existence of a severe lack of solidarity between countries that should have been helping each other and the few international aids that came were mostly late, insufficient and aimed to get a positive review - not on Google but into international papers. Euro-area leading countries are at the very top of this infamous ranking, using the excuse of closing their borders as an excuse to close their hearts. The speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the European coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreak closed with the remarks "Lang lebe Europa! Vive l'Europe! Long live the EU!", but after Brexit none of the current European countries' primary language is English, and she forgot to make a deserved reference to any of the Southern European countries. Such negligence not only shows a wolf under sheep's clothing, in terms of who counts in the EU but also complete lack of consideration for countries like Spain and Italy that are among the ones that suffered the most, globally, due to coronavirus. They didn't receive needed help from their fellow union members, and Italy, the country which lost the most lives to the virus, was denied medical equipment by the EU when they begged for it. Italy had ultimately to rely on Albania and China (China sent medical experts by plane along with 30 tonnes of various medical equipment). Hence, I find myself asking what is the purpose of the EU at this point? It would be interesting to ask this to Mauro Ferrari, EU’s top science chief who as of a couple of days ago resigned from his role discouraged by the inadequate and deft response of the European Union to covid-19.
A final opportunity
The risk that I see on the horizon after coronavirus is that the relationships between the UK and the EU will deteriorate even more on the back of new motivations for worsening an already planned separation. But Brexit is not my only concern. I recently read an article from the valiant Martin Wolf in the Financial Times saying that China and the US will have to lead us out of this current crisis. Still, I believe that, in a quasi-karmic spirit, we have to pull ourselves out of the mud with our strength. Many countries needed a loud alarm, and they rightfully got it. Italy, for instance, tragically leading the ranks with an explosion of casualties, and deep economic losses, finally will have to confront its shortcomings of not forming a capable government, now more than ever needed to lead and to reform the country after years of reckless laissez-faire. The United States, dear to my heart as Italy and the UK, must take action against their environmental pollution and miserable social care. China should stop brainwashing its population and exploiting the planet in its own very personal fashion, thinking that gifting a few containers with sanitary equipment will be enough to foot the bill.
This crisis is a one in a lifetime opportunity to start again and to look at our neighbours as fellows, not as foes. Each country, and ethnicity, has its flaws and qualities, but none shall overcome the greater good of being here on this Earth together at the same time.