On March 21, the British Embassy in Rome announced that the British Consulate in Florence, after a presence in the city lasting over half a millennium, will close. Effective on December 31, 2011, British consular services for Northern Italy, including Florence, will be available through the British Consulate General in Milan. Consul David Broomfield spoke to TF about the logistical and historic implications of the closure, and to reflect upon representing Her Majesty's Government in this city for the past two years. After an eminent, whirlwind diplomatic career representing his nation in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Europe, today he looks back fondly on his years crossing the Arno, and looks forward to a possible future in Italy.
Why is the consulate moving to Milan?
This came down to a logistical decision. We've already got a very large consular operation in Milan which covers both trade and consul work. So, when the reviewers came and looked at the services that we offer throughout Italy, they decided that we could base all northern Italy services in Milan.
How many British citizens are currently registered in Tuscany, and how strong is the current British business presence in Florence?
Being members of the European Union, Brits are not required to have a permesso di soggiorno unlike, for instance, long-term American visitors to Italy, so it's really only if Brits take out residenza that the region can register how many there are living here. There also exists a large number of British citizens who live part time in Tuscany and part time in the United Kingdom (UK); they may spend up to six months a year here but do not become residents, and so their presence is not recorded by the authorities. My best guess is that there are about 15,000 Brits, resident or semi-resident in the Tuscan region. As for British businesses, there are fewer than there were say 10 to 15 years ago. There are still some very good British businesses here, but most of them are small to medium sized: art historians, tour guides, shop owners and the like.
If I'm a British citizen, what will change for me after December 31?
What basically changes is that instead of telephoning us for advice at a Florence number, you telephone a Milan number. Quite a lot of the time, queries or problems can be resolved by phone. One big difference will be is that if a tourist in the city manages to lose his or her passport, instead of coming into the Consulate here, they will have to get on the train either to Milan or Rome for an Emergency Travel document. It's an additional journey lasting an hour and a half, minimum.
Who will represent the British government in Florence once the consulate closes down?
The British Ambassador in Rome will be appointing an Honorary Consul to Florence. The Honorary Consul first and foremost serves as the representative of the Ambassador to the city. He or she will be required to occasionally liaise with city representatives and attend major representational events. A British Honorary Consul is also expected to be first on the scene if there is a major disaster, a really tragic road accident, for example, if a Consular team from Milan (or even Rome) is somehow delayed. If it is not an immediate matter, the Milan Consulate will deal with it. A British Honorary Consul usually has his or her own business, their own premises, and are not required to offer assistance for non urgent day to day consular business.
This news was disconcerting to both the British in Florence and Florentines. How do you reflect upon the historic relationship between Great Britain and this city?
The news has certainly been a shock to both Florentines and members of the British community. Britain has had an almost continual presence in the city since 1456 - some 555 years - starting at the time of the Medici. In fact, there was an Embassy here when Florence was the capital of Italy. There was of course a time during the Reformation and also obviously during World War II when Britain was not represented here, but overall we have been part of the fabric of the city for over 500 years. During my first Queen's birthday party speech, I spoke about the fact that there is a special place in the hearts of the British people for Florence and Florentines. From the historic and traditional point of view, the closure is extremely sad news. And on the personal level, it is sad for the members of the team, the dedicated and professional people who work here who will be losing their jobs. So, there is that human aspect as well, aside from the historic implications.
What will you miss most? Do you identify with British Tuscaphiles?
Well, I live in the Oltrarno, where we've been living for two years. It is a delight, the 'true Florence' as they often say. The small shops, the artisans; I can fall out of my front door and go to the dry cleaner's, the supermarket, get my shoes repaired, get a haircut and still have time for lunch! Everyone knows you, everyone greets you; there's a village feeling about it. So I'll miss that friendliness. We have a dog and from the Oltrarno it is a ten minute walk to the Tuscan countryside. This is true luxury. I'll also miss crossing the bridge to come to work every day, sort of semi-awake and looking at the colours of the Ponte Vecchio. Even now on the walk to work I can only think how lucky I am. It was very funny because I started working at the Consulate on my birthday, and my Vice Consul asked why I had chosen that day. I replied that I could not imagine a better birthday present for me than actually starting work in Florence as Head of the Consulate! I was expecting to enjoy it for five years, but unfortunately we'll only have been here for two.
Where are you headed now?
The jury is still out! I've applied for a posting, and if that doesn't happen I'm going to take my pension and move to Naples! I worked in Naples for four years as Vice Consul covering the mezzogiorno area many years ago and we made quite a large group of friends there. Over the years they've become more like family and are desperate for us to come back! To tell you the truth, I was torn between Florence and Naples, but I suppose that since I worked in Naples for four years, I set down deeper roots there.