Contra spem, as the ancient Romans used to say: meaning “to hope against hope”, to dare to dream. I am reminded of this exhortation when thinking of Britain’s EU referendum, a vote which offers a clear choice either to stay in, as we hope is the outcome, or to leave Europe.
In my mind’s eye, like all of you, I can see the smiling face of the MP Jo Cox, her life given over to great causes, the photograph with her little son peering at the sunlight through a glade of trees; her senseless death. I can see also the strength and dignity of a democracy that can be divided – bitterly so – on everything, but which nevertheless can stand united and strong when faced with hatred, with the unthinkable, with the absurd.
Seen from Italy, a vote to leave Europe would not be a disaster, a tragedy or the end of the world for you in the UK. It would be worse, because it would be the wrong choice. It would be a mistake for which you the voters primarily would pay the price. Because who really wants Britain to be small and isolated?
If there’s one thing the British have never done when faced with a challenge that concerns their future, their very identity, it is to make the wrong choice. A Britain less great than it is would go against the very logic of those who want an exit. It would swap autonomy for solitude, pride for weakness, and identity for self-harm.
The EU both limits and supports its member states. That’s its job as an institution. You can see why. And ultimately the choice is yours: the choice, made freely and democratically, of the British people – to whom it is not easy to give lessons on liberty and democracy.
Yet tomorrow it is not only the right to leave but the duty to remain that is at stake. And I believe that in the past it was in the pursuit of a Great Britain that this island nation transformed itself into a beacon of cooperation, enterprise, openness, energy and innovation.
Why not take the momentum generated by this vote and channel it instead towards demanding a more effective European Union – one that works better, and better recognises the individual character of the markets of its constituent countries?
The European Union is not only the peaceful response to centuries of war on our continent. It is also a tool – one that can be improved upon – to turn our individual weaknesses into a common strength. The problem is not that it does this too much but that it does it too little – that individual countries are too often left alone to manage their problems. No, there is no superstate in Brussels, no pedantic grocer who measures cucumbers and lives on arcane and exacting acronyms that obscure reality. Can Britain really fear this caricature?
We are confronted by challenges of immense proportions. These are financial and economic, as both money and power move east; they are social, as inequality grows again, with biting poverty afflicting ever larger sections of the population.
On the security front, terror threats come from our own cities and neighbourhoods more than remote parts of the world. On the demographic – rather than democratic – front, with the inexorable movement of people, there are no islands, no meaningful barriers or borders. And politically, there is the rise of various kinds of populism that aim to break down and corrode the bonds of our communities.
So don’t do it for us. We’re just happy to be in the union with you. Do it, rather, for yourselves – what you stand for: both the history of a nation that has always looked beyond itself, and a future as a platform for innovation, which we all envy and admire.
You won’t be brought around or frightened into your choice by pleas or insults. As British people, you will always rise to the occasion. You’ll never walk alone.
We Europeans will respect your voice, your choice, your decision. But that choice has never before been to retreat or to move backwards.
We will be cheering for Great Britain in Europe. Not just because you’ll be staying with us, but because, as the ancient Romans used to say: Sibi constet: stay constant, stay true to yourselves. Remain.
Matteo Renzi is the prime minister of Italy and secretary of the centre-left Democratic party.