Italy’s ambassador to the UK: Brexit could have been avoided

Pasquale Terracciano [Daniela Vincenti]

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in a referendum last month could have been avoided had the United Kingdom introduced national reforms to manage freedom of movement for EU migrants, the Italian ambassador to the UK has told euractiv.com.

Pasquale Terracciano has been for three years the Italian ambassador to the UK.

Terracciano spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti.

We are still trying to make sense of the British people’s decision to leave the EU. Do you think it could have been avoided?

It could have been avoided. Probably it was not a good idea to call a referendum on such a complicated issue, which was more for a thorough debate in parliament. Then there should have been a clear alternative option, whereas there was not. Now we see all the debate on what should be the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

I sense there is a growing consensus for the UK to stay in the Single Market. But to stay in the Single Market, you have to accept free movement of workers.

Right. There seems to be clear support for agreeing on an arrangement, an ‘EEA Minus’, meaning the UK would join the European Economic Area provided it gets some exceptions – like freedom of movement. Is this possible, or wishful thinking?

Once again here we could have avoided Brexit if they had introduced some national reforms in order to make the free movement enforcement possible.

At the moment, the directive on free movement is not really enforced. For example, nobody knows that EU workers, after three months without a job, can be sent home.

The reason why there is no such enforcement because they never introduced an ID system. They tried but they failed. They have no registration system, so you cannot trace down workers and check.

At this point, they can remain in the Single Market and enter EEA – not minus – if they can transpose properly the free movement directives and better implement the rules.

But the solution is not in Europe, as people here say, stressing that Europe should change and make reforms. That’s a different discussion. The main solution is to be found here, whereby the freedom of movement is sustainable because it is not a free for all, but it’s a freedom of workers.

So, if you are without a job you can be sent back.

Are you saying that the UK has not properly transposed freedom of movement legislation?

British people have always done the so-called gold-plating of EU laws, which shows that Brussels doesn’t have the monopoly on regulation and red tape. This is because there was a great amount of homegrown red tape in this country, otherwise you would not be able to explain this gold-plating habit they have.

I am of the opinion that one should put his or her own house in order before demanding the EU to change.

Do you think the EU should stick to its guns and not be too flexible in the negotiations with Britain? 

The rules for joining the EEA are quite clear. If you join the Single Market, you need to also implement freedom of movement. You can‘t go cherry-picking with the Single Market. That is not compatible with the idea of the Single Market.

In the end, I think they should aim for EEA status. It would be the occasion to reform internally their registration, ID system and maybe their welfare system to avoid abuses.

You have generations of people living out welfare benefits in every country. That is surely not healthy for the economy of a country. Brexit will be the occasion to put order in some processes that are no longer sustainable, as they refer to very old noble tradition of freedom and solidarity, which are not viable and need to be updated and made compatible with the EU-wide system.

By doing so, they would end up with the EEA status. In a way it is quite ironic, as they would need to apply rules decided elsewhere and they would not have a voice. But this again is their choice. This is the danger when you decide to have a referendum on a very complex issue without a clear alternative.

After all, the UK has always carved exceptions and opt-outs. Maybe the ‘Norwegian’ status, as they call it, would suit the British better. What do you think? 

Right. In the end, I think it would be better for everybody if they have a detached status, such as Norway. It is at the end a cultural issue. Maybe sharing the advantages of the Single Market, in due time, they will realise that there is something more important than the economics in the European Union project, and that is the concept of solidarity of people who share values and traditions, a project which is based on cooperation and that finally secured peace to the continent after centuries of wars and conflict.

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