CAN I ask you to spare a thought for Europe? What? you might say, you’ve thought of nothing else for months. I’ll make myself a little clearer – put yourself in the shoes of a German, a French person, an Italian or Spaniard right now and imagine what you would be making of the situation across the English Channel.
Before you dismiss this notion as the kind of dangerous Europhile thinking that got us into this referendum mess in the first place, think not just about geography, but about history and shared cultural, educational and sporting links.
And consider the future too. After ignoring my pleas to study a foreign language for GCSE, my son Jack came home from college the other day looking rather thoughtful. “I wish I had taken Spanish or even French at school,” he said. “Or even German. It must be amazing to be able to speak another language.” He’s been lucky enough to visit Germany on a school trip, and also travelled in France, Italy and Spain, so he has some understanding of how culturally we are connected. He’s never known things to be any different and possesses not even a hazy memory of how England ‘used to be’.
He’s also a huge football fan, fluent in the European game, the leagues, the stadia, transfer rumours and kits. Where arch-Brexiteers see pride in Great Britain, he sees a connection with the sport he loves.
I suspect that his new-found interest in all things linguistic is not unconnected to the ideas he’s been batting about how an isolated Great Britain might end up becoming not much more than a colony of the United States.
I argue back that this is fanciful, but he is only 16. His political awareness is still embryonic; yet it is his generation who will inherit the outcome of Brexit and, in this respect, we must be careful what we wish for.
Whilst President Trump looks on from across the wide Atlantic and remarks that we seem to have made a hash of things, politicians and commentators closer to home in Europe are divided between despair and derision at Great British incompetence.
Above all, we must avoid becoming an entirely insular little nation concerned only with internal divisions – yet that’s what we look like. And we must also realise that in any negotiation, however protracted and tortuous, there are two sides. Many people in Britain, politicians and public alike, are guilty of blithely assuming that Europe should be lucky to have us.
The truth, it would seem, is rather different. Manfred Weber, a prominent German MEP from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, says that the EU’s priority should be to get the UK out of the union by the end of the month to prevent the conflagration from spreading into Europe.
Mr Weber, who is the leading candidate to replace Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the European Commission, described the mutinous disarray in terms usually reserved for an outbreak of infectious disease. “On the European side we are clear: we cannot allow the British chaos to infect and worm its way into Europe,” he told ZDF, a German broadcaster.
With friends like these, who needs enemies? Die Zeit, a German weekly, was slightly kinder. “For many decades Britain was considered a model of parliamentarianism,” its columnist fretted. “Out of all the world’s capital cities, you looked to London to see how democracy really worked . . . Now nothing is left of the glory of the past.”
Speaking of the past, the Spanish newspaper, La Vanguardia, pointed out that Britain had been through a divorce from Europe before. It brought to readers’ attention Henry VIII’s split from Rome in the 16th century and named it as the “first Brexit”.
“Even though the Tudor monarch’s motive was different, the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn,” its columnist ventured. “It required a similar propaganda campaign to recover English sovereignty and control their laws, their frontiers and their money.”
When people talk about returning to an idealised country of the past, do you think that’s what they’re talking about? No, neither do I, but that is how other countries regard us.
An Italian newspaper pointed out what a shambles we have become in comparison to the pride and excitement of just seven years ago at the Olympic Games in London, when Great Britain reminded the world that it was responsible for Shakespeare, the Beatles, James Bond and Harry Potter.
What will we be remembered for this year? Our Prime Minister’s ever-more desperate attempts to broker a deal, internal strife and a population worried that if they are actually brave enough to venture abroad this summer, their passports might not be valid?
That’s why now, more than ever, we must remember to look out and open our windows to the world, not close them down and shut it out.