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The Strength of UK-Italy Relations

Keynote address from the Deputy Prime Minister at the 31st UK-Italy Pontignano Conference (14 September 2023).

Ladies and gentlemen, at the risk of derailing what The Economist has rightly called the ‘blossoming’ relationship between the United Kingdom and Italy, perhaps you’ll permit me to say:

Vorrei ringraziare tutti voi di essere qui stasera, in questa bellissima citta, in questa antica e famosa universita.

Grazie di cuore.

Thank you to the Rector, for welcoming us to this fine seat of learning.

Thank you Mayor, for your very warm welcome to your wonderful city, which is so beloved of my fellow Brits.

Thank you to Lord Willetts and Carlo Calenda, for your leadership of Pontignano… and for all you do to nurture the close friendship between our nations.

And thank you – above all – to all of you for being here.

You all believe in the importance of this relationship between the United Kingdom and Italy.

Important, not just because of our friendship, culture and our long shared history.

But because you are strong believers in how much more we can achieve together as modern European nations facing the same challenges:

from supporting Ukraine in its fight for freedom

to confronting economic and energy security challenges

to tackling illegal migration.

And you know that to succeed, we must address them together.

The number of my colleagues attending this conference demonstrates that this is certainly the view of the British Government.

(Although it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that they took a lot of persuading to come to Siena!).

Their presence is a testament to the United Kingdom’s determination to drive forward a new strategic partnership between London and Rome.

Now our topic for this year’s Pontignano is ‘Adapting to technological change’.

But before I say a few words on that, let me take a step back and look at our relationship with Italy – to take stock, as diplomats like to say.

A turning point.

My counterpart, Antonio Tajani, said at the start of the year that relations between the UK and Italy were ‘at a turning point.’

And he was right.

Look at the situation that confronts us:

war in Europe

threats to our energy and our food supplies

climate change

irregular migration, across the Mediterranean and the Channel.

And all of it underpinned by the onward march of technology.

Set against that backdrop, it is surely no wonder that our two countries - sharing so many interests whose strengths complement each other in so many ways - should seize this moment to work more closely together.

And that is exactly what we are doing.

A longstanding friendship.

We are, of course, building on a very strong foundation.

The ties between our peoples go back centuries – indeed all the way back to ancient Rome and through the Renaissance.

More recently - 80 years ago, British Forces landed at Salerno, as part of their central role in the liberation of this country.

And next year we will mark the 80th anniversary of Anzio and Monte Cassino.

Today, the bonds between us are thriving and vibrant.

And there is also a mutual respect and affection between our peoples – epitomised in Italians’ moving reaction to the death of our late Queen a year ago.

And your enthusiasm at the Coronation of King Charles III earlier this year.

Indeed our new Monarch loves Italy, as he himself told an Italian television crew in the Mall the night before he was crowned.

So there is a rich tapestry of ties between us. And that vibrant partnership is an invaluable source of strength, as we face together the most challenging set of circumstances in many decades.

Until recently, perhaps the defining political moment of my generation was the 9th November 1989 – the date that the Berlin Wall came down and liberty rolled across our continent.

Now a new date is inscribed in our memories.

The 24th February 2022 – the date Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and its missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities.

The events of that day, and every day since, have reminded us of some old truths.

The need for strong defence to deter war.

The need to stand up to aggression today, or risk greater aggression tomorrow.

The need for friends and allies to stick together and stand up for what we believe in.

Every day since the invasion, that is exactly what the United Kingdom and Italy have done – as G7 partners and leading members of NATO.

Let me pay tribute to Italy’s response.

You have been at Kyiv’s side every step of the way.

And I am proud of the role that Britain has played and will continue to play, for as long as it takes.

If anyone doubted Britain’s enduring commitment to European security, you have your answer, not just in our words, but in our actions.

And as we sit here tonight, in this cradle of European civilisation, let us spare a thought for the people of Ukraine, a fellow European country, who face another night in bomb shelters or on the front line.

Forging a new relationship between the UK and Italy – real momentum…

It is not just on Ukraine, however, that cooperation has been galvanised between our two countries.

There is a real determination to make this relationship between Britain and Italy count for more, to be more than the sum of its parts.

Take a look at the last nine months:

In December our Prime Ministers signed – with their Japanese counterpart – the Global Combat Air Programme to build a new generation of combat aircraft together.

In February, our Defence and Trade Secretaries signed agreements forging ever closer relations.

And then in April, our Prime Minister was delighted to welcome PM Meloni to Downing Street where they signed an ambitious Memorandum of Understanding - covering issues from national security to cultural ties.

The agreement also covered another subject on which our countries share the same challenge: illegal migration.

This is a challenge that is political, societal, criminal.

Our electorates demand that we deal with it, and we must.

We both share the same sense of urgency – and albeit at different ends of Europe, we are facing the same phenomenon:

Large numbers of arrivals by sea.

Unscrupulous traffickers in human lives.

The death traps into which they place innocent  women and children.

The tragedies in the dark waters off the Channel,  off Lampedusa or the Calabrian coast.

So we are significantly expanding our cooperation together.

Working together in bodies such as the G7 and the Council of Europe.

Adapting to technological change.

In so doing, we will, of course, be taking advantage at every opportunity of new technologies – the theme of this Pontignano.

I am delighted that British scientists will once again be able to collaborate with those in Italy and across Europe as part of the Horizon programme.

And, as a Minister from the country that invented the steam engine, speaking in the land of Marconi, I know how well both our countries know the revolutionary power of technology.

And the list of technologies that have fundamentally altered the course of human history is relatively short: fire, metals, the printing press, the combustion engine, electricity, fission, the internet.

All of these tools have been bent to achieve a step-change in the pace of human progress.

And now I believe that we are on the cusp of another such inflection point, one that has the potential to make the pace of progress supersonic:

Artificial Intelligence, or more specifically, the advent of artificial general intelligence, represents, at once the most exciting and the most daunting challenge of our age.

Exciting, because there is an opportunity, as our PM has put it, for human progress that could surpass the industrial revolution in both speed and depth.

For game-changing innovations in all aspects of our lives:

unthinkable advances in medicine

cures for cancer and dementia

growing crops to feed the world…

or solving climate change.

But also daunting.

Not only will AI expedite and intensify the existing threat landscape,

in Artificial General Intelligence, humans face the potential of a technology that surpasses both the capability of our collective endeavour, and the limits of our understanding.

We have to accept that the answer to many of our questions about the AI frontier will be ‘we don’t yet know’.

We do not yet know what these machines might be capable of.

What we do know is that, to date, the limits of human progress have been capped by the sum of our collective intelligence.

By adding to that sum with AI - at potentially dizzying scales - we will redraw the bounds of what we previously thought possible.

But, as scary - and exciting - as that is,

it should not be a barrier to our exploration.

But it does mean that we need a new approach to regulation.

One that iterates to build faith in the systems that will come to underpin so many aspects of our lives.

This approach will involve active and ongoing collaboration between Governments, Al labs and academics, amongst others.

Many organisations outside of national Governments, in particular private companies - including those in Italy - have been pivotal to the most recent advances in AI.

I know that many such companies are taking part in Pontignano this year.

And these collaborations will be crucial to ensure the safe and reliable development and deployment of frontier AI throughout the world.

The United Kingdom is acutely aware of the importance of this moment – and of the need to act swiftly and with resolve.

Domestically, the Prime Minister has asked me to chair a Resilience sub-committee of the National Security Council, which will be taking a methodical approach to assessing the risks of AI.

And internationally, our forthcoming AI Summit at Bletchley Park in November will aim to agree how we can collaborate on frontier AI safety:

to agree a shared assessment of the frontier risks

as well as share some of the best examples from around the world of how AI is being used to improve lives.

Already, the UK has been working with industry leaders such as Google DeepMind, OpenAI and Anthropic, who will give us unprecedented access to their products and models.

So that we can mitigate against the risks, and take advantage of the opportunities.

The importance of their cooperation cannot be overstated.

We need them to ensure that our frontier systems are aligned with human objectives.

And we need them to ensure that they are deployed safely,

Because - ultimately - we need end users to have confidence in these transformative tools.

The Summit is an important forum to begin to address these questions.

But it is only one of the first steps in a very long journey.

We look forward to working with our colleagues in the Italian Government and across the world.

Together we have a huge stake – for our countries, as for the sake of humanity.

So my message is a simple one: it is vital that we work together to make AI safe.

I look forward to discussing this collaboration with you at this conference.

And to our colleagues in the Italian Government.

Let me say that the United Kingdom sees Italy as a crucial partner in helping us to achieve this goal.

We look forward to working very closely with you on this, and on other shared priorities, from migration to economic security to climate, as you assume the Presidency of the G7 next year.

So, there is plenty here for this year’s Pontignano to discuss.

This medieval city is famed - not just for its beauty - but for its enduring identity, its spirit and its character through the centuries.

Famous too for Lorenzetti’s 14th century frescos at the Palazzo Publicco - not far from here - depicting the tenets of good government, and the consequences of bad government.

So this is an ideal and inspiring place for such discussions – a city which has long stood for humanity’s ability to solve apparently intractable problems.

A city which centuries ago understood the importance of developing a legal and political framework by which society can be governed in the best interests of the wider community.

I like to think that if Ambrogio Lorenzetti were here today, he might recognise some of the dilemmas modern democracies are wrestling with as we seek the right way forward.

A few hundred metres from here, there is the famous pavement in the Duomo – the intricate work of artisans here in Siena many centuries ago.

At the other end of Europe, in London, there is another pavement – the famous Cosmati pavement, laid by British and Italian craftsmen in Westminster Abbey in 1268.

One of the earliest examples of what Britons and Italians can achieve together when they put their minds to it.

It was on precisely that pavement, watched by the entire world, that our new Sovereign was crowned in May.

Let that be the spirit in which we embark on this Pontignano, and usher in a new chapter of British-Italian endeavour for the good of both our nations, of Europe and for the good of the world.


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