TO VISIT BRITAIN after years of living on the European mainland, as Charlemagne did last weekend, is to glimpse the country through continental eyes. It is an exotically distinct place. Its cities are dominated by two-or-three storey buildings rather than five-or-six storey ones. Houses are more common than blocks of flats. Forms of convenience culture—pre-packed meals, card-tapping electronic payments, technological gizmos—are abundant. Institutions like religion, organised labour and even the state itself take a back seat. Public spaces feel shabby by northern European standards, but people are good-humoured about it. The country is strikingly mixed and multi-ethnic. Most notable is its sheer Victorian-ness: the architecture, the urban planning, the transport networks and even the pub names (Coach and Horses, Prince of Wales) speak of a country forged in the 19th century.
At its narrowest, the English Channel is 33km (21 miles) wide. Exchange and movement across this gap have shaped countries on both sides for millennia. Yet Britain remains different. To be an island is to be other—at once prone to insularity and to seeing horizons more clearly. To have been a superpower for a time is an experience that takes centuries to process. To have political and legal institutions distinctive from those of one’s neighbours is to find their instincts alien—and to be poorly understood oneself.
Britain’s otherness was good for Europe, a welcome speck of liberal grit in the unctuous continental oyster. It made Britain and its partners richer and more influential. But an awkward truth persists: the two sides do not understand each other well. It is a reality with which anti-Brexiteers on both Channel coasts must contend.
Nothing better illustrates it than the Brexit process. In David Cameron’s pre-referendum “renegotiation” of Britain’s EU membership and Theresa May’s Brexit talks, Britain overestimated the political salience of cross-Channel trade to the rest of the EU and wildly underestimated the importance of internal cohesion. Some die-hards still hope that German carmakers will press Angela Merkel into allowing Britain to cherry-pick the benefits of EU membership. They will remain disappointed.
Britons tend to see the EU only at its extremes, in its most pragmatic and most idealistic forms: half trade accelerator and half highfalutin peace project. The truth dwells in the complicated zone between the two. “European integration is primarily about ensuring collective European survival,” argues Alexander Clarkson of King’s College London. Although few fear a new major European war, the EU’s leaders are driven by the quest to preserve a recognisably European way of life (think modern societies and long holidays) in a multipolar world. It was this argument that Helmut Kohl used to win over sceptical Christian Democrats to the euro.
Likewise, Westminster parliamentarianism and Britain’s common-law legal system run on common-sense specificity and abstract principle, not the codified layers between the two that define the mainland. Continental systems rely on binding codes. Politicians can collaborate and do deals, but lawyers refer to first-principles legal scriptures. In London, where rules are mutable, officials wait for Mrs Merkel to signal that she does not really mean it when she says Britain cannot pick and choose the benefits of EU membership. Even Europhiles like Tony Blair insist that the EU would change its freedom-of-movement regime to prevent Britain from leaving. They are wrong. The fear of failed rules is more alive on the history-scarred continent than on a pragmatic island that never knew the jackboot.
Britons, who tend not to speak other languages, understand other Europeans more poorly than the other way around. But even the Anglophone elites of the remaining EU member states struggle to grasp certain things about Britain. It has long been assumed in capitals like Berlin that its vote to leave would somehow be forgotten or fudged: “The political and economic elite in the EU-27 have vastly underestimated the willingness of the UK public and politicians to vote for Brexit in the first place and now opt for a hard Brexit,” observes Nicolai von Ondarza of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
This illustrates two continental blind spots. Seen from afar and combined with stereotypes about British deference and stoicism among Europeans who spend too long watching “Downton Abbey”, Westminster’s wood-panelled frippery looks like a guarantor of establishment views. In fact, Britons are capable of and even prone to rebellion and transformation—from the civil war, to abrupt decolonisation, the Thatcher revolution and punk music. A letter on January 18th from German leaders urging Britons to stay was endearing, but also oddly twee. It gushed about the gentle delights of ale and milky tea while paying little heed to the abrasive, diverse, individualistic character of Britain today. The second misunderstanding is related: continentals have long overlooked the adversarial nature of Britain’s politics and assumed that its leaders can fudge their way to a compromise on Brexit. According to the Financial Times, officials in Brussels were surprised to find that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, did not have Mrs May’s mobile number.
Je t’aime…moi non plus
What to do? Europe’s leaders should realise that the stuffy yet practical country they thought they knew can sometimes be the opposite: anarchically capable of romantic self-destruction. London must realise that the continentals mean what they say about preserving the EU’s coherence and about standing by a member (Ireland) over a third party (Britain) in debates about borders. And those on both sides seeking a second referendum to end Brexit must accept that even a repentant Britain will be a troublesome participant in future moves towards European integration. Brexit is a disaster that should be reversed; yet if it is, that will not settle Britain’s relationship with its continent for one second.