Italy's Letta: UK 'is EU's big risk'


Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta spoke to the BBC's Gavin Hewitt

When Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta visits London later today his words will be analysed closely. He is, at 46, a relatively young Italian leader.

He is open, a fluent English-speaker and pragmatic. He is precisely the kind of European leader that David Cameron will have to get on side if he is to have any chance of successfully renegotiating Britain's relationship with the EU.

Mr Letta describes himself as "very pro-European" and an optimist. He seizes on Croatia joining the EU and Latvia's intention to join the euro as evidence of the European success story.

He even brands the euro a success - and then he throws in a caveat. The European Union, he says, is close to a big risk. That risk, in his view, is Britain.

The exit of the United Kingdom, Mr Letta told me, "would be a disaster for Europe and it would be a very negative step also for the UK and for our common future".

He says the role Britain is playing in the European Union "is a very positive one".

He cites London's support for expanding the single market, for liberalising trade, for security and defence and for pushing for a big trade deal with the United States.

'More flexible Europe'

When I asked him whether Britain could win back significant powers he said: "It can be possible and it could be useful for us too."

He does not indicate what kind of powers Britain might be able to repatriate, but what he does say is that "we need a more flexible Europe".

"We can have a new treaty negotiation," he said, "for the UK to have a different link, but remaining on board and for Italy or other countries in the euro to have a more integrated eurozone".

It is a vision David Cameron will want to explore. To sell continued membership of the EU to the British public he will need to convince other leaders of the need for a more flexible Europe.

Mr Cameron has spoken at length to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She says there could be room for some powers to be returned to the nation states from Brussels, as long as that included all 28 EU members. There could not be just opt-outs for Britain.

The Dutch, too, are exploring a looser relationship. In June the Dutch government produced a report on "subsidiarity"- on what powers can best be kept at national level.

"The Netherlands is convinced that the time of an 'ever-closer union' in every possible policy area is behind us," the report concluded.

In all this there is an opening to negotiate and that is why a leader like Enrico Letta will be listened to so attentively in London.

Italy's struggle

The priority, of course, for Mr Letta is the Italian economy, mired in recession. He is adamant that Italy will not need a bailout. Italy is one of the very few European countries with a deficit below 3% and has a primary surplus.

That doesn't disguise the depth of the Italian recession - the worst in 20 years - nor a debt-to-GDP ratio heading towards 130%.

Businesses are struggling to find credit and many are still owed thousands of euros by the Italian government. Youth unemployment is at 40%.

Enrico Letta agrees there is a risk that an entire generation might conclude that Europe cannot deliver. He describes youth unemployment as the "nightmare of my job". He says it risks creating an "exodus generation" which opts out.

He says he has adopted a plan of cutting labour taxes for employing young people, but he knows that everything depends on growth returning.

In the midst of the economic storm there are questions over how long his coalition will survive.

He is a centre-left leader in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi's party from the centre-right. At the end of the month the Italian Supreme Court will hear the final appeal of Mr Berlusconi against corruption charges.

If his appeal is rejected he risks being barred from holding public office. He and some of his closest supporters maintain he is the victim of a political conspiracy. They have described the magistrates as being "in a secret association whose members are not known".

Some of Mr Berlusconi's allies have threatened to bring down the coalition - although how that will influence the court is unclear. But Enrico Letta felt it necessary to warn that for foreign investors Italy had to demonstrate a complete separation between political and judicial power.

He is optimistic his coalition can survive, but he is also making it clear there will be no influencing of the legal process just to save his coalition partner.

Even with its deficit under control Italy is a reminder that the crisis in the eurozone is not over.

Gavin Hewitt, Europe editor Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I voted yes to remain a member of the European Common Market, I was not asked to vote on membership of a central European government and in concert with the vast majority of British citizens if I had of been I would have voted NO, The time is long overdue for us to be asked that question, the time for dishonesty is over

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I don't care to be honest. No matter what the people want the government will not pay any notice

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.


    All the Italians I know - and I know many - have now realised the EU is a giant PONZI SCHEME!

    All ponzi schemes rely on more "victims" being suckered in at the bottom of the pyramid - to feed the payouts to the few at the top. Thus the Croats are fodder.

    The greedy Latvians are too blind to see the chaos they're about inflict on themselves by joining the Euro casino!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I would like to remain in Europe IF we can negotiate a deal based on co-operation rather than rule. If not I want out & the power to set our own destiny restored. Of course I'm living in cloud cuckoo land as our offensively arrogant politicians won't listen to any advisors or base any policy on evidence if there're no votes in it for them. So what power will WE THE PEOPLE actually get back?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The UK banking sector is precisely what harms our economy. They gamble our money away and make us by for their debts via bailouts. It is a massive con, and they get rich because of the strong pound.

    But the strength of the pound makes our exports too costly. That is what has destroyed our industry, pushed the cost of living up and seen money sucked from the people & services beyond London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Of course he wants to the UK to stay in—and keep paying Italy's bills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    We need to stay in the EU so taht we can have a say on standardizing the laws that are needed for a commonmarket to flourish.

    If we leave we have no say, and just have to obey the laws set down by others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The EU would be more 'inviting' to the British public if we thought we would be better off, our laws upheld etc, but I see none of that. It seems that other leaders want us in purely to meet their own agenda. . . . . . .Blood is thicker than water as they say

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Even though i'm a European Federalist who would ideally like to see a United States of Europe, i can't possibly see myself voting to stay within the EU if reforms aren't made to increase democratic accountability. For example i hate the fact that the commission(An unelected body), is the sole body allowed to propose legislation. It's like the House of Lords being the only body allowed to in the UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    There's a misunderstanding about a common market is. The common market is not and never was a free trade area - it is a single integrated economy with free movement of goods and people. It requires standardized laws to function - it couldn't work without them.

    EU membership is necessary for us to shape those laws. If we leave the EU we have no say in EU law, yet must follow it to stay in the EEA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    If it wasn't for UKIP the talk and discussion of a referendum on leaving the EU would have been kicked in to the long grass by government and media alike.

    Well done Mr Farage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The creation of the Euro is at the heart of objections to EU interference in our affairs; and is the main reason why there needs to be harmonisation of non trade related matters within the EU. Unless the UK adopts the Euro there will be ever greater division as further harmonisation takes place. Eventually London will lose its banking prominence. We must hope the Euro collapses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Why should Cameron be concerned about the Italian Prime Ministers support for renegotiating our EU membership. All of the EU leaders should be left in no doubt if we are not allowed to renegotiate our place in the EU, we will leave. Cameron should tell the people before a referendum what powers we are going to repatriate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Of course the southern European countries want us to stay. For the same reason they would be devastated if Germany did the unthinkable and abandoned the boat. They need the money the northern countries keep pouring into the pot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Britain gave almost £9bn to the EU last year.

    That is the reason Letta wants Britain to stay. Without our contribution, Italy may have to pay their fair share.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Britain voted in favour of joining the EEC. It has turned out to be a huge con, we were basically lied to. To continue a relationship with anyone who has lied on an industrial scale is not healthy, and the lies still go on. The reason none of the EU members want the UK and its money to leave is it will be the start of a decline in the whole project. If it doesn't work fix it. Go back to the EEC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Many of the people who support our continued membership need to visit the A&E of a hospital. It is flooded with immigrants. We gain little to nothing from the EU. It's time for the British people to have a say in our future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    If Britain left, Italy would have to pay in, as im sure Mr Letta knows.

    @harry lime - Its the EU policy that allows companies to move their tax base to the lowest tax country, if we were independant we could stop them !

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The reason for so much unemployment in Europe is because with the possible exception of Germany all other nations have outsourced industry to India China & the like. Welcoming country's like Latvia & Croatia is all very well & good but ultimately these country's will be net beneficiaries rather than contributors. All has gone quiet on the Euro at present but it has not gone away or fixed itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Britain didn't voted to join a European UNION. It did not exist. Britain voted for a European COMMON MARKET. So return to the European Common Market.


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