One unavoidable reality of geography and history, often forgotten or ignored during Brexit debates by Leavers and Remainers alike, is that what happens on the continent of Europe will affect Britain whether it likes it or not. The biggest dangers to the UK’s future prosperity, stability and security are now the Front National’s Marine Le Pen and the Five Star Movement’s Beppe Grillo.

If the Front National’s candidate were to win France’s presidential election next May, both the European Union and the euro single currency would be dead. Some British zealots might relish that idea in theory, but they should be careful what they wish for: the resulting banking collapse would alone be enough to throw Britain back into deep recession. And Theresa May’s vision of an open, free-trading world would have taken a step backwards even larger than was the election of Donald Trump.

Yesterday’s news that Nicolas Sarkozy is now out of the race to be the centre-right’s candidate should be welcomed in London. As a former, in effect failed, president (2007-12) he stood to represent everything that the Front National so successfully demonises: a self-interested establishment remote from ordinary voters. He has always liked to present himself as the insurgent, Trump-like candidate; in truth, he would have been France’s Clinton.

But the choice between two former prime ministers, Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe, is no guarantee against a President Le Pen, since they hardly count as either newcomers or men of the people. Fillon was well ahead in the first round of his party’s primary and his manifesto is remarkably Thatcherite by French standards, but that could make him hard for his party’s centrists to support, let alone the left in the second round of the real elections next May.

There is a long way to go. That is not true of Italy’s constitutional referendum, which takes place in less than two weeks’ time, on December 4th. But the real Italian battle will be over the aftermath to the referendum result and whether there should be a general election any earlier than February 2018, the next scheduled poll.

Grillo’s Five Star Movement is the most powerful opposition to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and is leading the campaign against Renzi’s constitutional reforms. Those reforms, on which Renzi has bet his political future and much of his governing energy in his two years in office, concern a big reduction in the power of the Senate, Italy’s upper house, the abolition of one layer of local government, the provinces, and the centralisation of power over infrastructure decisions.

Here’s the funny thing: many prominent people campaigning for a ‘no’ vote on December 4th are doing so not just because they oppose Renzi or the reforms but because they fear the Five Star Movement. They think the reforms – and most particularly a related electoral reform – threaten to give too much power to any prime minister, the next one of which they fear could be Grillo.

So Italy’s December 4th referendum is not directly a threat to either Europe’s stability or Britain’s, but it could set off a dangerous train of events. If Renzi loses and is forced out, he may be replaced by a new, perhaps technocratic prime minister. The campaign for the next general election will begin, along with efforts to bring it forward. It is that campaign that could destabilise the euro and hence all European financial markets, including Britain’s.

As a result, Britain needs to pay a lot closer attention to what is going on in the countries with whom it will soon be negotiating. Shunning summits, condemning whinge-o-ramas, talking patronisingly about the role of Prosecco in trade talks is not the way to do this. Helping the EU to function properly while the UK remains a member is far more important. And so is giving support to other advocates of free markets and openness – such as Fillon, Juppé and Renzi.

by Bill Emmott | 21.11.2016

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