British business owners in Italy feel Brexit jitters

It’s been three days since Britain voted to leave the European Union, and the shock of the outcome, along with the calamity that’s followed, is yet to subside among Britons living in Italy.

British business owners in Italy feel Brexit jitters
Photos: AFP

Even more so among those who have established businesses here, many of which are dependent on the UK market.

Chris Myton owns two businesses – in property management and swimming pool construction and maintenance – in the southern Italian region of Puglia.

Some 70 percent of the 35 properties, owned by Italians, on his books are rented out by British holidaymakers.

His biggest concern, as the summer season gets underway, is the exchange rate and the impact its volatility will have on both his British customers and the Italian property owners.

The UK’s financial markets were still in turmoil on Monday, with the British pound plunging to a 31-year low against the US dollar. There is also pressure on the euro, with the bloc’s currency hitting a three-month low against the dollar.

“We advertise [our properties] in sterling; we did try to advertise in euros, and while it shouldn’t sound like a huge issue, a lot of people in the UK were uncomfortable with not having a fixed sterling figure on what they would pay,” Myton told The Local.

“Meanwhile, because we have advertised in sterling, the Italian owners will get less than they expected. It’s going to have an impact as clearly anyone doing business in sterling will be hit by the exchange rate.”

Ginny Bevan has lived in Italy for 20 years and owns a wedding planning business in the Lake Garda area.

“I’m feeling panicked,” she said.

“I thought the vote would be close, but I didn’t think this would be the outcome – I thought commonsense would prevail. There is also incredulity among Italians here, they’re thinking: ‘What have we done?’”

Her business is also largely dependent on the UK market.

“The exchange rate will put customers off. It will affect travel and how many guests will be able to come, which will mean smaller weddings.

“People are always more cautious anyway when planning a wedding abroad. A wedding needs to be booked in advance, and so this outcome adds to the uncertainty.”

Expats in the EU will retain their rights for at least two years as the UK and EU negotiate a “withdrawal agreement” before the real Brexit takes hold.

“Thankfully they’re not going to untie everything in one go, or maybe won't untie everything in the end,” Bevan added.

So for the most part, at least while there are more questions than answers, the outcome of the referendum has left British business owners not only feeling worried, but baffled as to why 52 percent of people voted to 'Leave'.

“Just generally, I’m massively disappointed and really concerned about the future and the economic implications,” said Emma Cuthbertson, who runs La Piccola Agency, a boutique marketing and PR agency, in Lombardy. 

“It’s creating an atmosphere of instability, the pound is crashing. From a business perspective, it’s very concerning. I don’t understand why we voted out. Something as complex and important as this should not have been left to a referendum.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but just doing trade with the UK will be more difficult. It’s a step backwards, not forwards.”

Cuthbertson, who has lived in Italy for eight years and was in Spain for a decade before that, was in the UK a few days before the referendum.

“There was a really unpleasant atmosphere, it was very divided, politicians are not leading the way. Many concerning things have come from this.”

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‘So stressful’: How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple’s Tuscan dream

One couple from Manchester found the home of their Tuscan retirement dreams, but the stalemate over a UK-Italy driving licence agreement is throwing their future into question.

'So stressful': How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple's Tuscan dream

Iain and Lynn Gosling lived and worked all their lives in and around Manchester – at a bank, where they met, then in various schools – but had always dreamed of retiring in Tuscany.

In 2018, with the Brexit clock ticking, they decided to take the plunge, and after a lengthy Place in the Sun-style hunt, they finally found their ideal home.

The podere (farmhouse) they chose just outside the town of Pomerance, in the province of Pisa, checked all their boxes: it had an olive grove, was close enough to the beach, had a friendly local community, and the town was particularly invested in green energy, sourcing most of its power from renewables.

Most importantly, it was just over an hour’s drive from Pisa airport, meaning they could regularly go back and visit family in the UK.

READ ALSO: ‘We bought the cheapest house in Piedmont and live mortgage free’

“We’d holidayed in Tuscany for 20 years, and the views and everything were even better than where we’d been holidaying. So we kind of thought we struck gold really,” says Lynn.

“When we saw it, we just knew, and when we went into the town it was such a good, welcoming feeling.”

Iain and Lynn's podere in Pomerance.

Iain and Lynn’s podere in Pomerance. Source: Iain Gosling.

The couple began building a new life, learning Italian and befriending local residents. They were careful to take the necessary steps to secure their future in Italy before the Brexit deadline, registering with the town hall and later obtaining carta di soggiorno residency cards.

But – like many other British nationals in Italy – the pair didn’t anticipate that almost two years on from Brexit, negotiations for a reciprocal driving licence agreement between the two countries would have stalled. It’s an ongoing state of limbo that threatens to make their retirement dream unworkable.

While with hindsight the pair would have exchanged their driving licences before the Brexit deadline, they believed a deal would soon be reached – especially as the UK allows EU licence-holders to drive with almost no restrictions.

“If we cannot drive in the short term, I’m sure we can find a way round it somehow,” says Iain. “Longer term? No, not really.”

READ ALSO: Do you have to take Italy’s driving test in Italian?

A 12-month grace period granted in 2021 is due to expire in January unless an agreement is reached, forcing UK drivers to choose between taking an Italian driving exam that could well turn out to be unnecessary, or gambling on a last-minute deal that risks leaving them without a valid licence if it doesn’t materialise.

For Iain and Lynn, who live a four-minute drive from the town on hilly country roads without access to public transport or pavements, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice.

“I’d be absolutely lost without driving,” says Lynn, who judges that without a car the couple would have to make daily hour-long round walks into town to buy basic necessities.

They decided that Iain would take the exam so that at least one of them would still be able to drive in the absence of a deal, and booked his theory test for November to give him time to prepare.

As a minimum of 32 days must pass between passing the theory test and sitting the practical exam, he’ll only just secure his Italian licence in time in the event that there’s no agreement – if he manages to pass both on the first go.

READ ALSO: Some of the best learner sites for taking your Italian driving test

Iain and Lynn outside their Tuscan farmhouse.

Iain and Lynn outside their Tuscan farmhouse. Source: Iain Gosling.

“So – no pressure on the theory test,” says Iain, who plans to fly back early from Christmas holidays in the UK to sit his practical exam if he succeeds in passing the former.

The couple know they could have begun the process earlier. But the test requires answering the same theory questions as a native Italian speaker and a taking mandatory six hours of practical lessons, and it isn’t cheap – Iain and Lynn estimate the total cost to be just under €1,000.

What’s more, those who pass an Italian driving test are classed as new drivers (neopatentati) for three years, which comes with a range of restrictions on speed limits and vehicle engine size, and a zero tolerance policy on alcohol.

READ ALSO: Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

All this has made taking the test a last resort for people who believed the UK and Italian governments would have reached an agreement by this point – or have at least issued clear guidance as to what action UK licence-holders should take.

The UK’s ambassador to Italy stresses that negotiations continue – though has encouraged British residents to book an Italian driving test.

A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Rome told The Local in October: “Since August we have continued and intensified further our work with our Italian colleagues and have made progress towards our shared objective.”

Lynn says: “Over the last six months it was very optimistic, everything we were hearing. It’s just in the past two months that we’ve thought, well, wait a minute.”

If Iain doesn’t manage to pass the test before the deadline and no deal is reached, “we are stuck,” he says.

“This situation is so stressful.”

READ ALSO: How UK drivers in Italy face new problems after passing Italian driving test

The couple fear that without the ability to drive, their current lifestyle would be unsustainable.

“You wake up thinking about it, and you go to bed thinking about it,” says Lynn. “Anxiety, that’s how it makes you feel.”

“Someone will turn around and say, well why didn’t you take your driving tests 12 months ago so you’re not in this situation?” says Iain. “But if all the signs were encouraging from the ambassador, we thought well OK, we can keep our benefits here and we don’t want to lose them.”

While the embassy insists that negotiating the agreement is its top priority, Iain worries that the recent political upheaval in both the UK and Italy has pushed the issue on to the back burner.

“We have no choice but to have faith in our British representatives to deliver and soon too, because the previous regulation extension was far too late,” Iain says. “We need to know now so we can make definite plans and contingencies.”

Despite the stress, Iain and Lynn are determined to do all they can to find a way to remain in Pomerance, where they say they’ve been embraced by local residents and have become good friends with their Italian neighbours who occupy the other half of their semi-detached property.

“We don’t want to give this up,” says Iain. “We love it here and we want to stay.”