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Lord William Arthur Waldegrave is a member of the Conservative Party in Britain and served in the cabinet from 1990 until 1997. He is now a life peer in the House of Lords. His latest book is titled "Three Circles into One: Brexit Britain: How Did We Get Here and What Happens Next?"

 ZEIT ONLINE: In 2016, you voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. Why?

Waldegrave: I had abstained from the membership referendum in 1975 because I did not think that the campaign at that time was honest. I thought we were telling the people that it was merely about joining an economic community and that we severely underplayed the political underpinnings. But in 2016, there were two reasons for my vote. One had to do with my children: They were clearly Remainers and their consciousness of being both British and European had grown in the way that people had hoped it would. So, I voted to remain. I also had a tactical reason: Britain had negotiated an extremely privileged position for itself in the EU with the exemptions from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty and from Schengen. David Cameron also got the exemption from the EU's stated mission of an "ever closer union." It was a formal acknowledgment that we did not really share the building of a political entity. We got what we wanted. So, for me, it seemed to be a very bad time to leave.

ZEIT ONLINE: Was there anything Europe could have done to convince British voters to stay?

Waldegrave: I cannot see what Europe could have done. The most serious disaster was not Europe's fault, it was Tony Blair's fault: He did not use the exemption to delay uncontrolled immigration in 2004. That was a bad mistake. He thought these people would later vote Labour. Another thing, of course, was that the economic boom preceding the financial crisis was primarily felt in the south and in London. Its benefits were not shared equally around the country.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why is it so difficult for the UK to develop a kind of European consciousness?

Waldegrave: We pro-Europeans in the Conservative Party and in the social-democratic wing of the Labour Party were too feeble when it came to arguing in favour of the European ideal – of producing a new kind of political entity where loyalty would ultimately be to European institutions first and to national institutions second. That is not a dishonourable idea, but the British never acknowledged the political dimension of the EU. If we had been saying – as Helmut Kohl did – that we want to anchor the UK in a broader European entity, then we would have had ground to stand on. But we never even tried.


Waldegrave: Britain's fundamental difference was that in the 20th century, our institutions didn't fail. And because we never fully committed ourselves to the EU – as most of the other countries in Europe did – we were on extremely weak ground when it came to countering the nationalist story with a different narrative.

ZEIT ONLINE: Did winning the war make such a difference for the UK?

Waldegrave: The French diplomat Jean Monnet allegedly once said: "Britain's misfortune is having won the war." He meant that we were unable to put our past behind us. France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy: They have all been brave enough to put their defeats behind them, in a sense. But perhaps it is more difficult to escape from an honourable past than from a dishonourable past.