A TIME OF TRANSITION. His Excellency Raffaele Trombetta was the Italian Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 29th January 2018 to October 5th 2022, leaving London after four and a half years, half a year longer than the normal stay. Brexit, Covid, the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, her State Funeral, and the accession to the throne of King Charles III all happened during his ambassadorship, and there were three Prime Ministers, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta, how did you manage the position of Italian Ambassador through such events?
They have been really intense years. Brexit, of course, was not a surprise. We were following very closely the negotiations between the EU and the UK, and, although not part of the negotiations as such, what we were reporting back to Rome about the UK’s position was very important. One specific aspect of particular interest was all the regulation concerning our Italian citizens living in the UK. We were giving our authorities in Rome constant feedback about what really was happening, and also promoting a common position together with the other embassies and the EU delegation.
How has Brexit changed the relationship between the UK and Italy?
Brexit changed something in our bilateral relationship, but not necessarily for the worse or for the better. Simply, it’s a different framework now that the UK is not anymore a member state of the European Union. We have so many common challenges, also common views with the UK: Libya and Northern African in general, the Western Balkans, Africa and climate change. Last year we co-organised COP26 with the UK. The UK had the Presidency of the G7, we of the G20. Climate change and sustainability was very important in this regard. We are bidding for Rome Expo 2030 and our theme is people and territories, sustainability. We see that as a continuation of the work that we were doing last year.
Did many people decide to go back to Italy because of Brexit?
We have not recorded a flow of our citizens out of the UK after the referendum. Actually there’s been a substantial increase of Italians who decided to register with our Consulate. In the six years after the referendum the number more than doubled. We were about 200,000 in 2016. Now they are well above 400,000. Not necessarily all new Italians coming to the UK, but it shows that Italians were not leaving the country.
“When I presented my credentials, the Queen was telling me about some of her experiences in Italy as a child”
Raffaele Trombetta presented his letters of credence as Italian ambassador to the UK to HM Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace on 14 February 2018
Raffaele Trombetta, are the positions of the UK and Italy similar in this very unfortunate war between Russia and the Ukraine?
Very similar indeed: in supporting Ukraine; in condemning in any possible way and form the aggression by Russia. Our European Union sanctions in many cases have been mirrored by the sanctions implemented in the UK. There are so many things that we have in common.
Did you have a relationship with Number 10 Downing Street and the changing Prime Ministers?
I did and we do as an Embassy. I’ve met on many occasions the current Prime Minister Liz Truss when she was Foreign Secretary. I’ve met Theresa May and Boris Johnson a few times, sometimes accompanying our Prime Minister when he was meeting them, some other times when there were other gatherings.
As a diplomat can you make a judgement about these Prime Ministers?
Boris Johnson is very flamboyant and a charming person. I also enjoyed the time when Theresa May was Prime Minister, whom actually I have then met on many occasions afterwards at small number meetings on different issues. Two different personalities, that’s for sure.
The United Kingdom is going through a difficult financial moment, the pound plunged and there is inflation. What about Liz Truss, the new Prime Minister?
It’s too early to say, she’s just started. As UK Foreign Secretary we had a very good relationship with her. She had a very good working relationship with our Minister of Foreign Affairs, so I expect it will be the same now that she’s the Prime Minister. We all are going through different and difficult times. Her government has made a clear decision on economic policy and in the plan the intention was something that would not necessarily work immediately but would need some time to kick in. Let’s wait.
The Labour Party and its leader Keir Starmer are taking advantage of this difficult situation and may win the next election. Do you have an opinion about that?
It is the natural dynamics of any democracy. Of course the Opposition would take any opportunity to criticise the Government, especially in difficult times. The Conservatives have been in power now for more than 12 years. It’s quite a long time. Obviously Labour is now hoping that eventually they will have their chance.
Both the British Prime Minister and the American White House immediately expressed much more friendly and confident messages about the new government in Italy than other European countries?
I saw the very positive message which was Tweeted by Liz Truss and also one by the US Secretary of State Blinken about our elections. Personally, I subscribe entirely to these. Again, it’s democracy functioning. They were free elections in Italy. Our people voted and the way they voted and the result of their vote is very, very clear. It’s fair enough that countries like the United States or the United Kingdom acknowledge and respect that.
“You don’t want to be just a copy of someone else in any activity, in any job”
Raffaele Trombetta, earlier this year here there was a great celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and then in September there was her death and state funeral. Have you participated in these events?
Yes, of course. For the Jubilee we were invited to different events, the biggest one was the ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was four days of the country celebrating 70 years of the Queen as the monarch whom they have generally loved. Little did we know that would be the last big thing that she could do. When the sad news of her death arrived and President Mattarella came for the funeral I welcomed him and gave him all the assistance that I could give in those circumstances.
The whole world including Italy participated in the state funeral that was shown globally on TV. Now the UK has a new King, Charles III. Do you know him?
I met the Queen a few times, when I presented my credentials and also the receptions and garden parties at Buckingham Palace, and I have met the King when he was Prince of Wales on many occasions. The very first official thing that I did four or five days after I arrived in the UK was at the Cardiff Opera House, because we both were patrons of a Verdi trilogy. The first one was La forza del destino, and both of us were there. This summer in July I was invited to the country house they have in the north of Wales. I felt really privileged because normally they invite local people but for the first time they decided to invite a very few diplomats, and I was amongst those four or five to be invited. That was the last time I met him before he became King. The first time I actually met him was before the beginning of my mission to the UK, in 2017 in Florence, because he was there for the 100 years of the British Council in Italy and was awarded as Renaissance Man.
Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta, did the Queen and does the new King know Italy well?
Yes, they love Italy. When I presented my credentials, the Queen was telling me about some of her experiences in Italy as a child, going to Venice with her mother, really nice episodes of her life in Italy. Every time that we met the Prince at the time with Camilla – who is now the Queen Consort – Camilla always used to say to my wife, “Please find any possible excuse for us to go to Italy!”
Despite certain republican voices the British monarchy seems to be very much loved and respected?
The reason I believe is that the royal family, and especially the Queen, has managed to combine modernity and tradition, and however many things have happened has always been able to understand the change and how to change with the times. I think this will be the task of the King and of the future generations. The King has really shown how much ahead of the times he was, talking about sustainability and biodiversity. The secret of the royal family has been not neglecting or denying the traditions – that after all are the backbone of the royal family – but at the same time understanding the changing times and the needs to modernise.
When you met the Queen did she make a particular impression on you?
Presenting my credentials has been one of the highlights of my experience, and I will always remember that the Queen had this incredible talent to make you feel comfortable, very soon, so you forget that you are talking to the Queen. Moving from personal memories to more substantial topics, but always with such a light touch that only afterwards do you think “Oh Wow! I was talking to the Queen!”
Did she seem interested in what you had to say?
We were there – I say we because I was with my wife – for about half an hour, and she was asking about our personal life but she also sent her regards to the President. She was interested about Italy in general, Italian politics, our bilateral relationship. She advised me to travel, to know the country as much as possible, which I have tried to do.
The Queen never seemed to give opinions, even in the referendum for an independent Scotland?
But she hinted. (laughs)
Do you think the new King will be different?
It’s difficult to know, but one should always understand that each one has their own style, and it’s fair enough. You try to be what you are. You don’t want to be just a copy of someone else in any activity, in any job.
Raffaele Trombetta and his wife Victoria, en route to Buckingham Palace
Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta and his wife Victoria at Buckingham Palace
The Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) visited the Pirelli factory in Carlisle and met staff to mark the site’s 50th anniversary, accompanied by Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta and Pirelli CEO Marco Tronchetti Provera. 8 April 2019.
Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta and Marco Tronchetti Provera with the Prince of Wales at the Pirelli factory in Carlisle. 8 April 2019.
Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta and Marco Tronchetti Provera with the Prince of Wales at the Pirelli factory in Carlisle. 8 April 2019.
Alain Elkann in conversation with Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta, Italian Embassy, London. 29 September 2022.
“It’s transition all over the world, not just in the UK”
Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta, having travelled around the UK as much as possible, following the Queen’s advice, is the country going to remain united?
The weight of London in terms of the economy and of the cultural life is striking. London is a country in a country to a certain extent. One of the challenges the UK has – and you can say the same about Italy – is to unite the country. There’s still a wide gap between the more affluent areas and the less. As for being in danger of becoming a disunited kingdom, I honestly don’t know. Some polls show that for Scotland it is still 50/50, and 50/50 may not be good enough if you are actually really pursuing independence.
The Queen probably knew she was going to die in Scotland, and when she passed the new King went to Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Do you think the royal family have a great role to play in trying to keep unity?
Yes, it was very important that the King held meetings with the local authorities; Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Michelle O’Neill in Northern Ireland, Mark Drakeford in Wales. The royal family and the King will play an important role.
After four and a half years, what kind of country is the UK that is now out of the European Union?
It is obvious to me, but maybe not to others, that it is going through a transition. It’s still a great country, and the soft power of the UK is really strong, not only because of the language and the universities, of the research – which is still top, top class – and the creative industries. I would also put the Premier League in the soft power of the UK. It still is a very attractive country for many people, especially for young people. If they manage, and I think they will, to keep this soft power and at the same time also manage the transition, it will still be a great country. It’s not, of course, the imperial Great Britain of the past. Brexit also has required some adjustment. Personally I think that’s been a mistake for the UK.
Brexit was a mistake?
A mistake. In my opinion. Even in terms of bilateral relationship we would have definitely liked to have the UK within the European Union. The war in Ukraine is showing that it’s very important that we work closely on this, as on many other challenges. Brexit still needs to be absorbed by the country and it still is not clear what and where Brexit is going to lead. Brexit is still something that is not finished.
When the Queen died, President Biden immediately went to the British Embassy in Washington to sign the book of condolences. Does this show that there is still a “special relationship” between the United States and the UK, or is it just a mythology due to the past war?
For the UK the “special relationship” is very important and the UK authorities do everything they can to keep that. The special relationship is not a substitute to the European Union. It does not replace what they have lost, in my opinion, by leaving the European Union. But it is true that the relationship, also the common work, is still very active between the UK and the United States, bilaterally, but also as part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance countries, on security and also many other things.
With all its traditions is the UK a modern country, more advanced than other countries and therefore, even if smaller, similar to the United States?
This is still a great country. I don’t know if you can say if it’s a better or a worse country than others. We are all going through some difficult times, the UK as the rest of Europe. The way we address these challenges, when people are severely affected by the cost of living and are losing jobs or have a big worry about war, then it’s very important that governments not only give them the right message, but also that the people feel that they are with them. It is a common challenge. Is the UK closer to the United States than to the European Union? Well, it’s for them to decide. It is not for me to make any assessment, or any judgement even.
Italy too is very close to the United States?
Yes, we are all very close to the United States, and all the more in these months when we have the common challenge of Russia invading Ukraine. We have all been backing the Ukraine government together. All the measures that have been taken in the European Union are mirrored by the measures taken by the United Kingdom, which has been really on the frontline. The way they’ve been supporting Ukraine all along these months has been remarkable.
Ambassador, these four and a half years in the UK have been a very interesting time of your career. What are your feelings on leaving?
I am very satisfied. I can say, without rhetoric, that it was a dream of mine to be the Ambassador to the UK. This experience, this time, feels like something is accomplished in my life, because that’s what I wanted. I leave the country with sad feelings because of leaving, but I will bring with me a lot of nice memories and great experiences. The quality of the people I’ve met is something that is almost unique to the United Kingdom.
We can say that you have been the ambassador of the transition time?
It’s transition all over the world, not just in the UK; but yes, transition in a country that really has a lot to offer if one is ready and willing to enjoy it. I’ve enjoyed these four and a half years.
Good luck for your future activities, and thank you Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta very much for giving me this interview.
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