Whenever I speak to German friends about Britain’s debate on membership of the European Union, I sense a certain puzzlement and exasperation. They often find it very hard to understand how the British can contemplate leaving the EU. The most charitable Germans put the Brexit debate down to British eccentricity, or insularity. The less charitable think it’s all about British nostalgia for the empire, or a mixture of xenophobia and self-delusion.
It would be foolish to deny that these factors play some role in driving the British debate about the European Union. But I think the best way of understanding the background to Britain’s referendum is to accept that the UK and Germany have always had very different approaches to the whole European project - for reasons rooted in post-war history.
For the Germans, after the disaster of the second world war, "Europe" was widely regarded as a moral and political necessity. There has never been much doubt, amongst the German elite, that the European Union is fundamentally a political project. The British, by contrast, joined the EU for reasons that were unemotional, pragmatic and fundamentally economic. They have had great difficulty coping with the transformation of the European Economic Community that they joined in the 1970s, into the modern European Union of today. The current British debate, ultimately, is about whether we accept this transformation of the EEC into the modern EU.
The contrast between the British and German responses to the second world war, remain fundamental to understanding the two countries divergent approaches to Europe. The Brits emerged from the war, feeling good about the country and about its political institutions. This post-war glow of self-congratulation helped the UK to cope with the end of empire, without an overwhelming sense of loss.
I think one of the commonest foreign misunderstandings of the UK is the belief that the Brits spend a lot of time, hankering for the old days of empire. This was certainly not my experience as a schoolboy in London in the 1970s. The films and comics that schoolchildren of that era were brought up on, were overwhelmingly about the second world war - an event that cast Britain in a flattering light. The British empire - a much more morally ambiguous venture - was little discussed, or studied at school.
This British collective memory of the second world war had two consequences that live on to this day. The first and most obvious is that, somewhere in the British psyche, there is still felt to be a certain glory in standing apart from the rest of Europe. Even more important, I think, there has never been much appetite for Europe as a political project. The British emerged from the second world war, with their belief in the nation-state and in their own political institutions bolstered, rather than diminished. As a result, many British Eurosceptics have always interpreted the drive for European unity not as an idealistic project – but as yet another in a series of European threats to the integrity of the UK’s political institutions. The controversial comments by Boris Johnson – linking the EU’s drive towards political union, with Hitler and Napoleon – have to be understood in this context. As a sophisticated politician, Johnson surely understood the incendiary nature of any reference to Hitler. But the idea that the European Union is a fundamentally anti-democratic project is one that is widely shared inside the UK.
I understand these sentiments because, for a time, I shared them. I worked as a correspondent in Brussels between 2001 and 2006. When I arrived, I was both an emotional and an intellectual Eurosceptic. I thought the euro was a flawed project - but there was also something about the drive for European unity that I found faintly sinister. When I left, my intellectual reservations remained - in some ways they had increased. But my emotional distrust of the EU had gone, and had been replaced by an appreciation that - for all its flaws - it is, I think, a noble and necessary project. A union of 28 countries committed to peaceful dialogue and democratic values still seems the best way of trying to preserve peace and freedom on the continent.
Over time, there have been challenges to the British faith in the superiority of the UK’s political institutions - most obviously in the movement for Scottish independence, which rejects the idea that "Westminster democracy" is something to be cherished.
Nonetheless, I think it remains true, that most British voters instinctively believe in self-government through national parliaments, directly answerable to the electorate - and are suspicious of the EU institutions. Ideas that are common in Germany - that national sovereignty is an outmoded concept or that democracy should operate at a European level through the European Parliament - have little natural constituency in the UK.