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20 June 2016

I suspect I’m a freak, but I feel emotional about the European Union

Ode to joy.

By Jonn Elledge

It’s not often I find myself feeling a deep emotional bond with Jeremy Clarkson, but this referendum has made all sorts of strange bedfellows, I suppose. Over the weekend, the late presenter of the BBC’s Top Gear, since passed on to the other side (Amazon), tweeted out a picture of some Mediterranean paradise or other with the caption, “Next time I come here, it’ll probably be ‘abroad’.”

This comment seemed to trigger a certain amount of cognitive dissonance among Clarkson’s usual fanbase. “Shame on you supporting the Remain camp,” began one roller-coaster of a response, before pivoting to: “I know deep down you want #Brexit”. (He doesn’t.)

I, however, found myself nodding. At the moment, however strange or irrational this opinion may sound to those who don’t share it, I don’t quite consider the continent to be foreign. I feel like European history is my history; that what happens in France, or Germany, or Poland, is connected to me in a way that happens in, say, Argentina isn’t. I consider myself European. 

And I feel horribly like that part of my identity might shortly get ripped away from me because it’s not shared by my countrymen.

That I feel like this is not a sign of any discomfort around my English- or British-ness. I’m a sarcastic, emotionally-repressed drunk who’s obsessed with royal history and house prices: you don’t get more English than that.

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It’s not that I wanted to be European instead of English; it’s simply that I’ve never felt the two were incompatible. In all this, polling suggests, I am unusual.

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Why I should feel this way is an interesting question, at least if you’re me, and self-obsessed, both of which I am. It’s certainly not because I’m particularly well-travelled: I’ve never lived outside the south of England, and when I went inter-railing as a teenager, I lasted a week, thanks to a combination of heat exhaustion and diarrhoea that made it a serious candidate for the worst week of my life. Nor do I speak any language but English: these days I could pootle quite happily around Europe on trains almost indefinitely, but I can’t actually talk to anyone.

If I’m brutally honest with myself, perhaps it just reflects a certain idea I have of myself and the world around me. I’m the sort of smug North London wanker who thinks “metropolitan elitist” is a compliment. (I almost wrote “I’m not proud of this”, but the truth is I am proud of this, and that’s half the problem.) European unity just fits in with the cosmopolitan person I tell myself I am.

More than that, as a nerdy kid I was raised on a diet of science fiction with world governments: maybe on some level I see the EU as a helpful step on the road to the United Federation of Planets. For whatever reason, though, I don’t just want us to stay in the EU because of some cost-benefit analysis. I find the whole thing emotional, too.

This isn’t how anyone is supposed to feel about this referendum, I know. I’m meant to be worrying about the economy, or sterling, or Britain’s global influence, or David Cameron’s career. We’re meant to want to stay in because, while the EU is a bit rubbish, we think it’s a damn sight better than the alternative package of recession, trade barriers, political impotence and Boris. 

The Remain side seems petrified of saying that Britain is European, and should behave as such, presumably on the grounds that saying any such thing might turn off swing voters. That assumption may very well be correct.

Some Leave campaigners accept that there is such a thing as European identity, but argue it shouldn’t be bound up with institutional architecture. Of course what happens in France would matter more to me than what happens in Mongolia, because Calais is closer to my house than Birmingham is. Geography and history mean we are European, regardless of whether we’re represented in the European parliament.

I disagree. During the Scottish referendum, some unionists argued that Britain was a matter of more than geography – that political links mattered too. I feel the same about Europe. If we leave the EU, I will feel like I am losing something.

There is a tendency in British politics to talk of Brussels as if it’s other people, wicked foreigners, trying to impose their views on us. But if that’s true of Britain, it’s true of the other 27 countries too, most of which are far smaller and less powerful than we are.

The European Union is often messy, and almost always unlovable. But I can’t help but think that, if we could see Brussels as an extension of us, rather than an outpost of ‘them’, we’d be having a less depressing debate right now.