What we learned from Theresa May’s first visit to Italy as PM

UK Prime Minister Theresa May was in Rome on Wednesday for a lunch meeting her Italian counterpart, Matteo Renz. The pair discussed Brexit, the migrant crisis and the terrorist threat facing Europe.

What we learned from Theresa May’s first visit to Italy as PM
UK PM Theresa May met Italian PM Matteo Renzi in Rome on Wednesday, Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

After a long lunch, the two premiers addressed the press in the grounds of Rome’s plush Vila Panphilij, overlooking the iconic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Here’s what we learned.


Unsurprisingly, the UK's recent decision to leave the EU dominated the short diplomatic meeting.

And with good reason.

There are some 600,000 Italian citizens currently living and working in the UK, while Italy represents the UK’s 8th biggest export market, buying €24 billion worth of UK goods and services each year.

“Brexit was a sad moment, but we respect the will of the British people,” Renzi said, adding that Britain's exit from the 28-country bloc should begin as soon as possible.

“We can’t go back on the referendum, without damaging democracy and our credibility,” he told reporters. “We now need to develop a precise timeline [for the Brexit].”

May promised that she ‘wanted, expected and intended’ to be able to guarantee the future rights of Italian citizens now living in the UK, but said it would not be possible “if the rights of British citizens living in the rest of Europe were not also guaranteed.”

“Leaving the EU doesn’t change the strength of the connection between the UK and Italy in terms of their culture, politics and humanitarian efforts,” Renzi added.


The pair condemned Tuesday's terrorist attack in northern France, and expressed their concern over recent attacks in France and Germany.

Italy and the UK will continue to work together to reduce the terror threat to Europe by securing a peace agreement in Syria and increasing efforts to bring political stability to Iraq and Libya.

“We need to prevent Libya from becoming a base for Daesh,” said May, referring to Isis by its alternative name.

Both Italy and the UK have been working hard to stabilize the country, which descended into civil war following the 2011 overthrow of the country’s authoritarian leader Muammar Gadaffi.


Italy has welcomed over 220,000 refugees and asylum seekers since the beginning of 2015.

Earlier this year, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated the UK would help share the burden of front line EU countries by accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2020.

At the time, many criticized that figure as unsatisfactory, but May gave no signs she would be open to taking any more refugees from Italy.

“90 percent of The EU's migrants are crossing from Libya,” she said, announcing Italy and the UK would be working to bolster the capacity of the Libyan coastguard to ensure the number of illegal crossings falls.

She also endorsed Matteo Renzi’s ‘Migration Compact’ – a political programme that will see countries in sub-saharan Africa given extra aid if they do more to stem the flow of people leaving the country.

The menu

The pair enjoyed an austere but highly Italian lunch of penne with tomato sauce, steak and home-made oven chips, which was followed by strawberry and lemon ice cream.

Renzi's office gave no indication as to whether any wine had accompanied the meal.

May’s Italian stop comes as part of a whirlwind diplomatic tour of EU member states, which will see her visit Slovakia on Thursday and Poland on Friday.

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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.