TRADITION AND INNOVATION. Inigo Lambertini was appointed Ambassador of Italy to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by the Italian Government in February 2022 and arrived in London in October, a few weeks after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Neapolitan by birth, he entered the Italian diplomatic service in 1987, and his career includes recent duties as Chief of Diplomatic Protocol in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome, after New York.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Inigo Lambertini, you are much decorated: a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic as well decorations of the Order of Malta, Sweden, Spain, Romania, Austria, Germany, Brazil and France.

A chief of protocol has many decorations because on a state visit there is usually an exchange of decorations. The first time I went to a diplomatic ball at Buckingham Palace I had the privilege of putting on seven. King Charles had far more on than me, but he stopped to look and to ask why so many.

Does the special place that Italy has in the hearts of British people make your job easier?

Yes, we recently spent a weekend in Venice for the Venice Seminar for the British press, and so there were many of your colleagues there from The Times, The Economist, the BBC, The Telegraph, The FT, and so on. It was a clear success, in part because of the discussions that were held in the seminar, but also in part because of the fact that it’s Venice, it’s Italy. British people have a generally very positive attitude towards going to Italy. 6 million of them visit every year!

Why this great fondness for Italy?

It is a combination of lifestyle, food and fashion: in short, the dolce vita. But also art, music, history. The fact that British people are usually on holiday when they go to Italy helps a lot. It is also true that the level of convergence and sympathy between the two prime ministers is currently the highest it has been in recent times.

“Our Prime Minister speaks English fluently, and that is not always the case for Italian politicians.”

Inigo Lambertini
President of the Council of Ministers Giorgia Meloni delivers a speech at the Italian Embassy in London on 28/04/2023

Inigo Lambertini, will this political friendship last with the possibility of a new Labour government?

First, we have we have to see if they win the election which is not a given. All the indications are of a Labour victory, whereas the stability of the Italian government will continue for some time. Keir Starmer and our Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni belong to different political families, but when you are in government, there are some parameters that you cannot avoid. There is strong cooperation and coordination between Rome and London, as well as numerous common interests. Italy is the second largest manufacturer European economy after Germany, so we are a natural partner for London. Maybe, if there is a Labour government, in the beginning we will have to find a common language to develop. However, there will be one, and finding it will be the job of the embassy.

How are the economic relations with Italy now, because since Brexit things are more difficult between all the European countries and the UK?

We just marked the fourth anniversary of Brexit, and four years is not a lot, so there are still plenty of challenges. Both sides needed to fine-tune real life after Brexit. However, certain popular predictions – that a tragic London would lose financial relevance in the world and that the UK would be a forgotten country in northern Europe – have not materialised. In the City of London, life is still very vibrant. Young Italian professionals continue to come and find their future in this country. Some are very highly qualified and this brain drain could be a problem for Italy, but this process never stops.

Did many go back to Italy because of Brexit?

Some went back, and some are not coming anymore. I have visited 24 universities in the UK during my tenure, and you do not see any major effects of Brexit at the postdoc level. The presence of Italian PhD students is remarkably high. There is, however, clearly a crisis for undergraduate students, like my children were years ago.

Why?

Because it is too expensive for European undergraduates, especially if you compare with the alternatives, such as the United States or elsewhere. This is where Brexit has hit the academic world, because foreign students make an important financial contribution to British universities. Without enough Europeans, universities will recruit students from other parts of the world, and this could change the future courses that each university will offer. I heard this from several people who have dealings with universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial College and LSE. It is a moment of transition that has not really affected the postgraduate sector yet, but when you start to lose undergraduate students, you can lose many people in the future. Before Brexit, my own children studied at the University of Bath, and without having any particular connection with UK they decided to continue to study in London and now they work here. Today this process is more complicated.

Do many Italians still want to come to the UK?

Yes, because it is still a country that offers you the chance of an excellent career. Even though there is a huge difference between London and the rest of the country, there are more than 120,000 Italians doing well living in the areas of Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Just over 500,000 Italians are officially registered as living in the UK, making us the third largest EU citizen community after Poland and Romania.

Is London very different from the many other parts of the UK that you have visited?

All countries have important capitals, but I have never seen anything like the differences between London and the rest of the country. London is so international. I think that London is more international even than New York, where I lived previously. This was also true before Brexit.

“The monarchy is the real unifying factor in a country that is changing significantly.”

Inigo Lambertini, nowadays are the UK and Italy of a similar importance as countries?

In some economic and cooperative ways yes, but we have a very different kind of soft power that is linked to the Italian way of life in a broader sense of the term. Here you still feel something of a recent past. The British Empire does not exist anymore, but people still recognise this country’s glorious past. The English language is also a powerful and iconic weapon. Some say that English is the Latin of today, but this is not true, because in the Roman Empire and then in the centuries after Latin was the language of the upper class, but not the rest. Otherwise, we would never have created Italian, French, Spanish, etc. People today try to speak English, no matter what their class is, so it is absolutely a universal language.

Are Italians very interested in the British Royal Family? As ambassador, you obviously will have met them. What is your impression?

Like everywhere, in Italy there is a sort of addiction to gossip relating to the royal family. When I meet people in Italy and tell them I am the ambassador to the UK, everybody starts to speak about them. Many of them have a lot of information – not always true, but a lot. Nevertheless, when you try to explain that the monarchy is not only Charles and William and their relations, but that it is the institution of this country, then people are a little bit lost. They do not understand what that means because they imagine a fairytale. But the Royal Family is certainly the most powerful information tool that Italians are looking for from this part of the world. My wife and I have met the King, the Queen, the Princess of Wales, the Princess Beatrice and her Italian husband and other royals.

They say the King is very keen on Italy?

I first met King Charles when he was still Prince of Wales and I was in Italy as chief of protocol. He was there for the G-20 summit state dinner in the Quirinale, and he told me that he has been to Italy more than 30 times. When we met again and I was ambassador here, he told me that he loves Italy and spoke knowledgeably about Italian food and the concept of chilometro zero, which was created by his good friend Carlo Petrini. He was born to be a king, and I think he likes the role; but he is also a man who waited a long time to ascend to the throne, so he has had his own life and many interests. When you meet him, you always have a short but intense conversation.

Do people feel very connected to the King?

They do, as was shown by the waves of sympathy and good wishes after he announced that he had cancer. A significant part of these wishes came from people who are not necessarily royalist, but they like Charles. In a year and a few months as king, he has created an excellent connection with people, even the people who believe the monarchy is a bit anachronistic and it is time to move on. But then, they have a king who speaks about climate change and the protection of historical culture and nature, and this is unique.

How well does the UK manage the balance between tradition and the future?

This is a country where they are making a significant effort to combine the two elements. We Italians belong to a country with a long and beautiful past, with the highest number of UNESCO sites in the world, but the contemporary is a little bit more challenging in Italy. To be clear, I do not mean that there is no contemporary excellence in Italy. I was recently in Chilton, close to Oxford, at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The laboratory, which is similar to CERN in Geneva and which has cooperated with Oxford University for over 40 years, is an Anglo-Italian collaboration. Despite such projects, the image of Italy is that it is not always very dynamic, modern country, so we have to work hard to change perceptions.

How does the UK, such an international country, still keep its own traditions?

I was surprised when I went to the Opening of Parliament ceremony that is held in the House of Lords. As ambassadors, we are asked to arrive one hour before. You sit there and you see all the Lords entering, with all the pomp and the circumstance, in full dress, in uniform, and so forth. And they are Lords, no doubt about this. Then you see that some of them are of Indian origin; some are of African origin; some speak to each other in Portuguese. The British have this capacity to create a ruling class from everywhere in the world. Maybe it is because of the empire. It may not exist anymore, but it was a major power. You still perceive this attitude of conquest, of a great past – even though the power belongs to a different era.

Is this a more pragmatic country than many others?

Yes, for instance in one of the major issues of today: artificial intelligence. In Italy, and in the European Union as a whole, the focus is mainly on how to regulate AI and the danger of its unethical use – which is certainly very important. But here, the main focus is how to exploit artificial intelligence. Maybe you need to be pragmatic to be a country with a formal tradition and a high level of innovation.

Inigo Lambertini

King Charles III receives Ambassador Inigo Lambertini at Buckingham Palace on 15th December 2022

Inigo Lambertini

Ambassador Inigo Lambertini at the Rutherford Appleton Centre to celebrate 40 years of partnership with the UK

Inigo Lambertini

Ambassador Inigo Lambertini live on RAI for the National Day for Energy Saving and Sustainable Lifestyles

Inigo Lambertini

Ambassador Inigo Lambertini with David Cameron. Lord Cameron was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs on 13th November 2023

Inigo Lambertini

Ambassador Inigo Lambertini with his wife Maria Grazia visiting Roberto Bolle on the backstage of the Royal Opera House

Inigo Lambertini

Ambassador Inigo Lambertini welcoming at the Italian Embassy in UK Antonio Tajani, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

“The British have this capacity to create a ruling class from everywhere in the world.”

Inigo Lambertini, what is the job of the Italian ambassador in London?

An Italian ambassador in London never rests. I expected a demanding job, but we never stop, there is always an event to host or attend. When I was a young diplomat, one of my mentors told me that you need two qualities to be a good ambassador: strong health and a willingness to eat everything. And this is true. The daily agenda is never-ending. Quite often, someone asks me if I can recommend a good Italian restaurant in London, but I do not have an answer, because almost every night I have an official event. Moreover, when it does happen that we have a night with no engagements, my wife and I stay at home to rest! (laughs)

You probably have a good Italian cook?

We do have a good cook. Officially, he is not Italian: he was born in the Czech Republic, and he has a Czech name, Dvorak. But – and this is evidence of the importance of European integration – his family moved to Piedmont when he was eight years old. Therefore, he is more Italian than me!

You are Neapolitan and he cooks Piedmontese food for you?

His vitello tonnato is amazing. He makes grissini that you became addicted to! I say this in a very a joking way, but it is crucial to have an excellent chef at an Italian embassy, because it facilitates conversation and contributes to the success of events. I often host informal dinners at my residence with people from think tanks and from across the British political spectrum, and we have exchanged a lot of valuable information during these dinners while eating excellent Italian food and drinking superb Italian wine.

At the moment is the UK quite politically appreciative of Italy?

In a year and a half, we have moved from a very stereotypical image to a concrete one. One of the turning points was the visit by our prime minister. Prior to this, the British press had not been so sympathetic and all the discussion had been about her past. Then she came here, and they discovered a very pragmatic but committed politician. Italy’s government has a coherence to its positions and a general picture that this country appreciates. We noted this during the Venice Seminar, where a British journalist told me we are now the stable ship in Europe. And if you consider some of our history…  Our Prime Minister also speaks English fluently, and that is not always the case for Italian politicians.

In fact, Italy is now not only a place to go for holidays, there is also a special new taxation regime for foreigners who want to establish themselves as residents?

Yes, and the more I meet the ruling class of UK, the more I discover that they have summerhouses in the south of Italy. Many ministers say they have a house in Puglia, or just bought a house close to Amalfi. Or in Sicily, in Piedmont, on Lake Como and so on.

Is the Italian language taught widely in the UK?

This sector has been affected by Brexit, especially in the universities, where we are still trying to find a way to replace the Italian lecturers posted by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as they leave once their contract is over. At the moment, we are not able to send new lecturers because there is no legal framework for this kind of work, as they work at the university but are paid by Italy. This is affecting the number of Italian courses.

Surely at the level of scholars of history of art, art historians, music, all that cultural world cannot exist without Italy?

Music, opera, opera singers. Even writers, although more English books are translated into Italian than vice versa. With the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square being an official government body, it is easier to elaborate a common strategy for fashion and food; people go to Italy to become a chef and they learn Italian. But there is not really an exhaustive strategy for the Italian language.

Is there an Italian school here in London?

Only one Italian school, just for first grade. Even though France and even Germany are larger than the UK, the pressure of English is so strong that parents living here prefer to put their children in English-speaking school because it is important for their future to have strong English-language skills. It is a unifying language here, and it’s the world language. If parents are able to give their children the opportunity of speaking English as a native language, they take it. 

After your experience of being here for a year and a half what are the most important things that you have learned?

I have learned that this is a fascinating, complex country. Even the UK is a victim of stereotype. You need to come here, to live here, to visit each single part of the kingdom, to understand the complexity, and also the beauty of this country and the culture. I have understood that there is, as you said, a sort of love complicity with Italians that is very easy, maybe because we have not been a competitive power with them for a long time, so it is easier to be relaxed with us, and vice versa. It is very easy to be an Italian ambassador because, with very few exceptions, you are always very well accepted. In this country, Italy is synonymous with beauty, good experience, and so forth.

Is this United Kingdom going to stick together?

You know, your family come from France and Piedmont; I am from Naples, so I am very proud to be Neapolitan and I joke about how the Piedmontese arrived to conquer our kingdom. But we are both Italian. In the UK, the differences between the regions may have been a little bit more pronounced over the last 20 years, but I feel that the people are fundamentally British; they have common history.

In this sense, the Crown is important.

The monarchy is the real unifying factor in a country that is changing significantly. The more the country changes, the more difficult it is to find common ground, and the monarchy is effective in this sense. When it was announced that King Charles had cancer, one of the first messages of sympathy was sent by the new First Minister of Northern Ireland. She is a Catholic Republican, but then she immediately sent a message to the King. Immediately. A political move maybe, but she made it!

Thank you very much.

ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.