It’s August in Tuscany, and the market towns are eerily quiet, presumably because most of their inhabitants are off on their summer holidays by the sea, in the mountains, or wherever. But there also seem to be fewer foreigners about than usual. Maybe they are lurking somewhere — in Florence or Siena probably — but what I do know is that there are no foreign political leaders spending their holidays in Italy this year. There was a time when they all came pouring in. Tony Blair came here year after year, usually freeloading as the guest of some grandee or other, earning much criticism within the Labour party as a result. But leaders of France and Germany came too, though more modestly, staying in hotels and paying their own way. David Cameron came to Tuscany with his family three summers ago and rented a villa (as had the French prime minister the year before) only a few miles from where I am now; but he hasn’t been back. Tuscany seems to have fallen out of fashion, but so, it turns out, have foreign holidays of any kind where political leaders are concerned.
This year the only non-Italian politician of any note to be vacationing in Tuscany is Ségolène Royal, France’s minister of ecology, who is however far better known as a former presidential candidate and mother of President François Hollande’s four children. But what of Hollande himself? He is holidaying only 30 minutes’ drive away from the Élysée Palace at La Lanterne, an official presidential residence at Versailles. He has also urged the members of his government to spend their vacations no more than two and a half hours away from Paris. Similar restraint is shared by almost all the leaders of western Europe. The Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, is staying in his home region of Galicia, where he was born, and the same is true of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, though his home region just happens to be Tuscany. Angela Merkel did visit Italy briefly last month, though staying in the rather Germanic South Tyrol on the border with Austria; but for the rest of her summer holiday she will be in her cottage in the Uckermark in north-eastern Germany.
All this of course reflects the continuing economic crisis in Europe, in which nations suffering from low or no growth and high unemployment demand modesty and self-denial on the part of their political leaders. Even the word ‘holiday’ has become taboo in political circles. It is replaced by ‘break’ or ‘period of repose’ to suggest the necessity of a rest for overworked public servants; and this, politicians believe, shouldn’t be spent anywhere exotic or glamorous but ideally on home turf in the bosom of the family. Even in the boom times the Blair family had to spend a few days in the rainy West Country to compensate for their gallivanting abroad, just as Bill Clinton had to go camping with Hillary in the Wild West for similar reasons. (‘What if I fish and don’t catch anything?’ he nervously asked.) This year even Silvio Berlusconi will be having to do without his ‘bunga bunga’ parties at his villa in Sardinia, where in 2004 he lavishly entertained Tony and Cherie Blair, who later rapturously described in a magazine interview how ‘fireworks lit up the words “Viva Tony” and we all sang “Summertime” together’: the judicial authorities have ordered him to stay at home on the mainland.
So it seems that David Cameron is the only leader of a major west European country to have had a proper foreign holiday this year, even if he had to interrupt it with visits to Glasgow for the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games and to France and Belgium to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. He has been with his family in Portugal, where he has found time to be photographed with his wife Samantha pointing appreciatively at dead fish in a fish market, a photo-opportunity he has seized on previous holidays abroad. I don’t know why he or his advisers think that dead fish will bolster his image: perhaps they are supposed to suggest healthy eating, or perhaps they are supposed to symbolise his opponents, Ed Miliband, for example, or Alex Salmond, whose name happens to resemble that of a fish?
In any case, Cameron is possibly the only west European leader apart from Merkel whose country has recovered enough economically to make a foreign holiday (even one actually described as such) seem to be acceptable.
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