Six months on, Brexit rift among Britons remains wide
Italy’s Gentiloni races to form a new cabinet
One campaigned to leave the European Union, the other to stay. Now, nearly six months after Britain’s shock referendum vote for Brexit, two thirty-somethings prove the debate is still very much alive, and just as painful. “I’m very, very excited about the future,” says Chris Mendes, a 31-yearold software engineer who supports the anti-EU, anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP), which helped drive the “Leave” vote.
But Thomas Cole, a 33-year-old political analyst who used to work at the European Commission in Brussels, says the future is still up for play. Since the vote on June 23, many Britons have had to wrestle with some of the stark and unsettling realities of what “leaving Europe” actually means. And, for Cole and others who voted “Remain”, this jolt gives cause to stay in the fight. “Just because the referendum has taken place doesn’t mean you say, ‘OK, I give up now’,” he says.
Outwardly similar, the two men are passionately divided on Brexit, reflecting the split that saw Britons vote 52 percent to leave the EU and 48 percent to stay. Introduced by AFP, they traded views at cafe in London’s St Pancras station, the gateway for travelers arriving from and leaving to continental Europe. Mendes, sporting a brown T-shirt and a three-day-old beard, acknowledges there are challenges to leaving the EU, not least pro-European MPs seeking to delay or soften the divorce. “There’s obviously a clear resistance to Brexit, there’s no question about that, but we expected that,” he says.
But Cole, wearing a smart jumper and striped scarf tied at the neck, argues that the referendum was “legally not binding”. He came home to campaign against Brexit and is a member of the pro-EU, centrist Liberal Democrats, who want a second referendum on the final terms of the exit deal. Cole suggests that if the exit negotiations “become complicated”, then the 2020 general election could be effectively run as a second referendum. “I couldn’t disagree more,” chips in Mendes, accusing Cole of a “morally bankrupt” position. Cole hits back: “You have to pass things through parliament, I think that’s normal.”
Taking back control
Under pressure from members of her Conservative party and EU leaders, Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to begin formal exit talks by the end of March. But she is fighting a legal challenge against calls for MPs to take the final decision on triggering Brexit, amid concerns that parliament, which overwhelmingly wanted Britain to stay in the EU, will try to block it. Meanwhile the cabinet itself appears divided on the key issue of whether or not to stay in the single market.
Remainers say quitting the world’s biggest trade bloc will destroy swathes of British jobs. Brexit supporters say Britain will forge new trade deals with the rest of the world. For Mendes, a principle is at stake. “We want to come out of the single market, we voted to take back control of our laws completely, we voted to take back control of our borders completely,” he says.
He reflects the government’s outward confidence that it will get the “best possible deal” for Britain-even if it has yet to set out how this will happen. Unsurprisingly, Cole says he would like to stay in the single market-and would be unhappy with some of the proposed compromises. One option is for Britain to leave the market of 500 million consumers but continue to pay for access, while being unable to shape its rules. “From a democratic point of view it’s frankly terrible,” he says. An upside of a clean break with Brussels is that “you wouldn’t have somebody else telling you what to do. Having said that, for the economy, would it be good? No.”
“In an ideal scenario, I want things to be as they are,” Cole admits, before he is cut off by Mendes, insisting: “That’s not going to happen.” The discussion is lively but good-natured, although elsewhere in Britain tensions are high, with reports of an increase in hate crime after the vote, and death threats against leading campaigners on both sides. Mendes says the national debate is “very healthy”, adding: “We have not discussed these things for about 40 yearsand now, for the first time, we are. “The natural consequence of that is an explosion, a massive clash, a violent clash, intellectually speaking, of ideas.” Cole agrees, and notes the recent election of Donald Trump as US president. “Ignoring people’s concerns is essentially dangerous,” he says. — AFP
New Italian premier-designate Paolo Gentiloni raced to put together a cabinet team yesterday as the market welcomed the apparent rapid resolution of the country’s political and banking crises. Gentiloni, 62, was asked by President Sergio Mattarella on Sunday to form a new centre-left government that will guide Italy to elections due by February 2018, following the resignation of outgoing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Opposition parties slammed the softlyspoken former foreign minister as little more than a Renzi puppet, but Milan’s FTSE Mib saluted the move, up 1.22 percent at 1030 GMT. Silver-haired Gentiloni, a onetime student radical from an aristocratic family, is expected to keep the cabinet largely untouched and present his final list to the president later. He will then seek parliamentary approval of his new government today or tomorrow. The biggest cabinet seat to fill is the one left vacant by Gentiloni himself, that of foreign minister.
Political watchers say it could go to Piero Fassino, a member of Renzi’s centreleft Democratic Party (PD) who has previously held the justice and foreign commerce portfolios. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who was Renzi’s deputy and heads the New Centre-Right (NCD) party, is also tipped for the post. Should it go to Alfano, the interior portfolio could be handed to Domenico Minniti, the state secretary with responsibility for the security services under Renzi.
Analysts say Gentiloni could also keep the foreign minister job for himself, at least in the short term. Pier Carlo Padoan is expected to stay on as finance minister to reassure Europe that the euro-zone’s third-largest economy is on solid ground. Among the most pressing issues facing the new government is the fate of Italy’s Monte dei Paschi di Siena (BMPS) bank. The institution, the third largest in Italy, had requested extra time from Europe to plug a gaping hole in its finances, but reports on Friday that the European Central Bank had refused, spooked the markets.
But just hours after Gentiloni was named as prime minister, the bank said it could avoid appealing for a government bailout, with BMPS shares up 7.18 percent in mid-morning trading yesterday. He is now rushing to resolve the political crisis sparked by Renzi’s crushing referendum defeat and downfall in time for Italy to attend the European Council meeting in Brussels on Thursday, where the pressing issue of migration is on the table. Italy is on the frontlines of the migrant crisis, with a record 175,000 people landing on its shores this year alone.
“The Gentiloni-Padoan government is coming together at a super speed to prevent the implosion of the Siena bank (BMPS) and to make sure Italy does not turn up at the European Council with an incomplete government,” the Stampa daily said. Renzi may be down and out for now, but analysts said he had tapped Gentiloni to replace him because he trusts him to keep his seat warm for the next general elections, which could be brought forward to early next year. “Gentiloni will be trying to maintain a direct line to his friend Matteo in order to take decisions together,” the Stampa said. — AFP
BRUSSELS: European Council President Donald Tusk (left) walks with European Parliament President Martin Schulz (center) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Council building in Brussels. The 28-nation EU has been rocked by the British exit referendum last year, and acrimonious relations with some eastern members on migration and constitutional law. — AP
ROME: Italy’s newly named Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni arrives for a press conference in Rome. Gentiloni was named as Italy’s new prime minister following reformist leader Matteo Renzi’s resignation in the wake of a crushing referendum defeat. — AFP