I am on an extended tour through the continent with my wife and three small children. To add perspective to the following story, they are six, four and one. So, you know, small kids. We have taken in France, Italy and now Austria, where I write this article. Throughout this adventure, I have learned some good things about Europe and some not so good things. I also think I understand the emotional heart of the Leave project better than I did a few weeks ago. Not why some chap in Morecambe voted to Leave, to be clear, but why the likes of John Redwood and co feel so deeply about its all, even when their conservative instincts should be telling them better.
We had a lovely time in France, but when we hit Italy the problems started. I had this fantasy, based solely on cultural stereotypes, that Italy would be a great place to take small children. I was really very wrong about this. At one particular restaurant, my one year old son was eating in his usual slapdash way, only I had by this point realised that Italians find this upsetting, so I was trying to clean up after him as the meal progressed. Not fast enough for the owner of the establishment, who walked up to me, pointed to the floor and said “This is not your home” in English. Part of the problem, of course, is that in the part of Italy we were in, by the lakes east of Milan, there aren’t a lot of English tourists and, weirdly as a result, there is sort of an anti-British vibe that is unmistakable. It’s the kind of thing that if you were there with some mates or a girlfriend/wife/boyfriend/husband you probably wouldn’t notice, but with kids in tow you can’t avoid it; you always get the cultural baggage slapped full in the face when you take your children along with you. It’s unfortunately unavoidable.
This made me think about the pro-Europeans’ dream of a united Europe; a place where all Europeans can be anywhere within the continent and feel at home. But as the Italian owner made clear, Italy is not my home, nor does has it ever once in my life ever felt like it. I have travelled extensively in Italy, north and south, and had some very memorable moments along the way – but never once could I say I felt at home or even really, if I was being honest, remotely comfortable. I feel slightly embarrassed to admit this, but having crossed the border from Italy into Austria today gave me an immense feeling of relief – I had gone from southern back into Northern Europe, and that made me feel notably more relaxed. I still don’t feel exactly like I’m at home here, but at least I don’t feel like everyone is looking at my loud, full of beans English son and clearly thinking about how they wish the Brits would just fuck off.
There isn’t a pan-European feeling or demos – not really. I’m someone who deeply wishes there was, incidentally. It would be awfully handy. But watching the Italians and the Germans interact over the past few days showed me how far away we are from that, never mind the anti-Brit vibe I had to deal with directly. Which to be clear, I got no sense was about Brexit in any way; I feel certain that had we voted Remain, that vibe would have been exactly the same. It’s just one of those things that runs deeper than anything purely political.
I guess it makes me understand the heart of the Leave project a little better. Why keep helping prop up this myth of a truly pan-European feeling that will probably not be felt during this century, and very possibly never ever? Why not try and become closer to what feel like are our more natural partners – those who speak our language and are culturally closer to us? I get the emotional pull of that. Only, there are still massive problems with the project, obviously, and I will only spend the rest of this article dealing with biggest and most obvious amongst them.
One, like it or not, geography is destiny. We trade so much with Europe because it is right there. Perhaps fifty years from now it will be possible to get from New Zealand to England in twenty minutes, and so we can buy all our fresh produce from them without any issue. Perhaps, perhaps not. Point is, it isn’t realistic at present. Two, the countries in question, so for clarity, America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, say, either don’t particularly want to trade with the UK unless the terms are greatly lopsided towards them – or they don’t really want a free trade deal with the UK at all. This is a serious and unavoidable problem with the Leave project, the real Leave project – it is hard enough to pivot all your trade elsewhere without elsewhere not really being at all interested in such a prospect.
Finally, we can’t avoid Europe – Britain never could. It always gets dragged back into European affairs, one way or another, and will continue to do so well into our grandchildrens’ lives at the very, very least. If Europe becomes a mess, it will affect us, very deeply, in ways we cannot predict, and that has nothing to do with how much or how little Kiwi lamb we are importing.
To summarise, we are stuck with the EU whether we like it or not. All these other possible destinies, as much as I can sympathise with how good they can feel if you think about them in the right way, are not in anyway realisable. Even if we had a genius for a prime minister, it would be not any different. The only roads ahead, should we really go for Brexit properly, are a powerfully shitty trade deal with the US that we desperately sign up to that has incredibly negative consequences for the vast majority of Brits; more likely, a form of extreme vassalage in the shape of a trade deal with China, who will relish getting their hooks into a proper, wealthy western country. At least we get some stuff for that, unlike the American deal. But I still wish we were thinking about this all more sensibly. For as much as my continental journey has had its undoubtable highlights, I am already missing Blighty something fierce. Truth is, I don’t want to live anywhere else.