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24 March 2003

Why Tuscany hates Blair

The PM needs to find a new holiday destination. He is no longer welcome in Chiantishire

By Hilary Clarke

Silvio Berlusconi nearly bought a castle and vineyard near the hill-top Tuscan town of Montalcino recently. He apparently planned to turn the thousand-year-old Castello di Velona into a fortified Italian Camp David where he could play global statesman and host to the world’s movers and shakers in times of crisis. The cost, 18 million euros, was to be his own.

But the Italian prime minister pulled out of the sale at the last minute. He said it was because a local had raised his left forearm at him in a rude Italian gesture. The man says he did not know it was the prime minister but made the sign because he objected to the speed at which his cavalcade was crossing the town’s famed medieval centre.

Whatever the true version of events, many a glass of Montalcino’s exquisite Brunello must have been raised in the town halls of the region’s medieval borgi after one of their own sent the country’s richest man packing. Tuscan people are down-to-earth folk and they are not impressed by arrogance, and still less well-disposed to Berlusconi. Despite its relative wealth, Toscana rossa (red Tuscany) returned one of the biggest left majorities in Italy in the May 2001 elections that brought Berlusconi to power. Tuscan mayors formed a large minority in the sea of town crests that paraded through Rome during February’s two-million-strong peace demonstration.

“Tuscany is like a black hole in western democracy – anti-government, anti-globalisation, anti-America, anti-everything,” lamented Roberto Tortoli, the founder of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party in Tuscany and current environment under-secretary.

Tuscany used to like Tony Blair. Over the years, his family have enjoyed a much kinder reception from the gentle, sloping lands than Berlusconi. The Blairs have stayed in some of the best castles and villas during their frequent trips to this highly popular Italian region.

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Lots of their friends, such as the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, and the former paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson, have houses there. Blair’s fondness for Tuscany gave its leaders a chance to meet someone they believed would be a powerful ally on their own turf. That was especially important following the election of the Berlusconi coalition. But now the anti-Berlusconi forces in Italy are, in the words of Montalcino’s mayor, Massimo Ferretti, “extremely disappointed” with Blair. Especially in Tuscany.

They might be able to forgive Blair for the comments he made during his first trip to Italy after Berlusconi assumed the premiership, for the G8 summit in Genoa two years ago. The British prime minister was the first world leader to attack the violence of the protesters before hearing the full facts. Widespread allegations of unprecedented police brutality at Genoa later became accepted.

A few months later Blair introduced a new bilateral institution into the mire of EU diplomacy – the Anglo-Italian summit, of which the first act was a joint declaration from Blair and Berlusconi that Continental Europe’s employment rules made employers shy to hire new workers. The summit came just before a planned general strike in Italy against government plans to tamper with the voluminous labour code. The issue was particularly important to the left-wing parties because it put Berlusconi on a collision course with the powerful unions.

The earthy people of Tuscany will likely never forgive Blair for backing unilateral American action in the Gulf, and especially not for the arrogant way he has gone about things. Blair and Berlusconi led Italy, one of the five founding members of the European Union, to do the unthinkable and break with France and Germany.

The sizeable Italian peace movement is based in Tuscany. In November, the city of Florence, the Tuscan capital, defied the central government and opened the streets to half a million peace protesters, marking the start of the global campaign against war in Iraq. The rainbow Pace (peace) flag that drapes balconies and windows all over Italy was born at the Florence demonstration and is displayed on every page of the Tuscan regional government’s tourism website.

After all, the tanks are already rolling through the area’s luscious yellow-and-green spring landscape. Tuscany is also home to Camp Darby, one of the US’s biggest arsenals of weapons outside American territory.

Branded the “train-stoppers”, the peace activists have been trying to block the trains carrying weapons, and dockers at the nearby port of Livorno have been refusing to unload military cargoes. Around 40,000 people demonstrated at the base on 8 March, and more protests are planned in future. The Camp Darby base lies just the other side of the mouth of the River Arno to the former royal hunting estate of San Rossore, where the Blairs have stayed as guests of the regional government on more than one occasion. Their last stay there, three years ago, did not go down too well with the people, who objected to the closure of the local beach for the Blairs’ private use. The beach, one of the most unspoilt in Italy, is still used by local fishermen as well as tourists.

The reason the Blairs’ host, the Tuscan regional president Vannino Chiti, decided to close it off was that protesters opposed to Nato’s bombing of Kosovo had threatened to hold demonstrations during the PM’s holiday. The following year, Blair stayed with a local aristocrat instead.

This year, there will almost certainly be protests wherever the Blairs decide to take their holiday in Tuscany. They would be best advised not to – unless, perhaps, the fortified Castello di Velona is still standing vacant, and they remember to drive slowly through the town.

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