Briton who closed Italy B&B over ‘crazy’ EU rules says Brexit a ‘major victory’

A 65-year-old British retiree from Manchester says he voted for Brexit after he felt forced to close his small bed and breakfast in rural Italy because of excessive red tape and “crazy European Union laws”.

Paul (not his real name) in 2012 purchased an old six-bedroom farm near Cassino, south of Rome, for €35,000 (£30,500), which he renovated for €15,000 (£13,000) and turned into his home and a B&B.

After barely four years of living there, burdened by bureaucracy, the widower renounced his dream, sold the property and moved back to Manchester, ready to vote Leave.

“It was hell, there are so many Italian and EU-wide rules you need to know about that I had to hire a lawyer to avoid losing my mind, and I only had a bunch of guest rooms,” Paul, a former gardener, tells i.

In 2014, he tried applying for European funds to expand the farm with extra rooms, which would have cost €20,000 (£17,400), but was told by the Italian authorities over the phone that his business was not eligible.

“These EU funds support small firms and accommodation structures like B&Bs but my place was not classified as a B&B, it was rather a “room rental” because it had less than 10 rooms, so after spending months and money in paperwork, my applications was rejected,” he said.

“It just sounded so stupid, like a joke. I needed the investment to add more rooms, if I already had 10, I would never have applied in the first place.”

Paul was frustrated by the “ridiculousness” of the situation, and laughed out loud, he says, when Italian authorities told him that if his property had turned into a real B&B, he could no longer serve fresh breakfast to clients, with homemade jam, cakes, cheeses and plates of cold-cuts.

“Once you run an official B&B, classified as such, biscuits, cakes, jams and honey must be sealed in packages like airplane ones for whatever hygiene reasons. My clients loved the fresh ricotta cheese and tomatoes I served on the porch.”

So he was stuck with continuing his guesthouse business, which wasn’t enough for him any more financially, despite the fresh ingredients he could serve for breakfast. He didn’t make enough money to invest in adding more rooms, without the funds.

“I retired to Italy because I wanted to lead a simple, no-brainer life, while running a small activity. I like meeting and welcoming people. But it’s been a nightmare. On top of Italian regulations, there are European ones which make it more complicated. How can anyone prosper in the EU?”

Each time there was a new guest, Paul had to forward his details to the local police station, even if it was just for a night, according to an Italian rule regarding all accomodation.

But what really pushed him over the edge, making him decide to sell everything to return to the UK in 2016 to embrace the Brexit cause, was a piece of EU legislation under discussion, which came into force in 2018.

The EU’s new privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) aimed at protecting consumers in the digital era, would have dealt Paul a further blow.

Under such a law, Paul would have been forced to comply to customers’ right to object to their data being processed at any time. He would have needed consent to process data at check-in and check-out, and accept clients withdrawing consent at any time.

“Other than having to redo my website, by hiring a web designer to place consent banners on each single page, I would have had to constantly monitor customer requests if they wanted to be removed from the database. It might not sound like a big deal, and I know the UK also partly incorporated the law, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Paul complains running a B&B in bucolic Italy was meant to be a pleasure, not a “nightmare”.

“I just felt trapped by all those rules, mine was a little one-man run tourist activity, not a five-star hotel. I wonder how a small entrepreneur can do business within the EU.”

As soon as he set foot back in the UK a few weeks before the referendum, he knew exactly he was going to vote Leave – and he believes he made the right choice.

“I think being independent from the EU bodies’ tyranny is a major victory, the UK’s global role has increased, in the my view, and I’ve gone back to be a gardener-on-demand,” says Paul. “Much less stressful.”