13 MAY 1989, Page 23

The Florentine touch

THE billboards of Florence carry the Christian Democrats' posters urging the voters to move Italy into the middle of Europe. Personally, I much prefer it where it is. I felt no anxiety, though — everything but the posters suggested to me that the prospect of a European election threatened, in Florence as at home, to induce a positive narcolepsis of apathy. In theory, the Italians are great proponents of a united Europe, and a safe vote for Jacques Delors' central bank and common currency when his grand Eurodoggle com- es before the heads of government in Madrid next month. Practice is another matter, as you are reminded as you wait in a Florentine bank, watching the holder of a traveller's cheque being refused payment in the currency of the cheque, or in any currency but the lira. Italy still has the exchange controls which we shrugged off a decade ago. A resident banker explains the paradox: Italy, he says, is strongly in favour of a common currency, for every- body else. On the wall of the bank is a fresco, showing King Edward III giving his guarantee to the banking house of Bardi. This may be there as an argument for exchange control, for the florins that the Bardi lent him left Florence and never returned. My theory, based on experience, is that the king tried to pay it back into the Banco Bardi, but got tired of standing in the queue.