I always thought leaving the EU would be a cause for celebration, but the sight of Donald Tusk accepting the Article 50 letter this week just made me feel a bit sad, and that we had let down our friends and neighbours.
One of the things Brexit has done is made me realise how European I feel, and I'm sure I'm not alone. I always found Vote Leave's whole Commonwealth shtick a bit disingenuous, because we have far more in common with the Dutch and the Germans than with most non-European countries, even those we did forcibly make part of our empire against their will.
Sure, the Asian economy is growing but India accounts for a tiny percentage of our trade compared with Europe, and if relaxed migration rules are the price we pay for more, then exchanging free movement with continental Europe for a country with 250m below the poverty line is just moronic.
But one of the results of the vote might be that Britons become better Europeans; this is not exactly an unintended consequence, as Daniel Hannan has argued the point before, but it's still somewhat counter-intuitive. Contrary to the thesis that Brexit has made the country a backwards-looking cesspit of hate, polls show that Britons have become more friendly to EU migrants since the June 23 vote.
Maybe strong fences make for good neighbours, or the upsurge in nationalistic rhetoric has made others more strongly pro-migrant in response; I have seen one academic paper showing that the election of xenophobic parties leads to more public warmth towards migrants, and it may be an instinctive human urge to protect the vulnerable; or perhaps people have got their xenophobia out of the system.
The Leave vote was, in my view, directly linked to the Blair government's decision to turn on the immigration taps from 2000, not just of A8 migrants (who only ever constituted a minority), but from around the world. Much of the frustration people felt was a result of powerlessness; they'd never been asked about this huge, irreversible change – far more consequential, for good or ill, than our EU membership – there was no decent party they could vote for to stop it, and they felt powerless to say anything without being labelled. (Now that's changed, of course, and people never stop talking about immigration.)
Likewise British tabloid europhobia of the 'Up Yours, Delors' variety is an expression of hostility but also impotence. Some British people felt that decisions were being made over which they had no power and so reacted with a Basil Fawlty-like rage; now that we're being forced to make choices with consequences, the tone may be different. (Who knows, though? One of the europhile arguments I agree with is that British newspapers have over the years been biased and factually incorrect about the EU, so that probably won't change.)
And, as the dying Irishman said when asked whether he rejected Satan, now is not a good time to be making enemies. We have got to start improving friendships in Europe and to behave like good Europeans.
James Forsyth has a good piece in the magazine this week in which he makes the case for a British charm offensive. He writes:
On 29 March 2019 the Queen should have a state dinner and invite the European Union’s 27 heads of state and its five presidents. The evening’s purpose would be to toast the new alliance between the United Kingdom and the EU: one based on free trade, security cooperation and shared democratic values.
This celebration of the new alliance will be especially welcome after two years of negotiations which are bound to be fraught and, at times, ugly. The complexity and the sums of money involved pretty much guarantee this. There is, though, a particular onus on Britain to keep things civil. We have chosen to end this failed relationship, so we should brave the insults and not feel the need to respond to every Juncker jibe. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, puts it this way: he says that Britain is moving from inside the cathedral of the EU to become a ‘flying buttress’ supporting it. When he first made the point, in Bratislava, it was mistranslated to the French delegation as flying bucket’ — causing much confusion.
One of the big problems we have is that the British, or maybe English, tend to overestimate how popular they are. For this I blame the mythologised Second World War, and the idea we've had drip-fed to us that we 'saved' a continent that should therefore be grateful. Most European countries endured unimaginable tragedies during that period, and so whatever your view of Britain's past, the idea that ours 'is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history' is painfully insulting to continentals. I'm pretty sure Donald Tusk's compatriots, who lost 6 million people in a hopeless struggle for survival and were sold out to the Communists afterwards, would not agree.
The fact is that the English are really quite disliked in much of the world. For some reason we're seen as arrogant, aloof and drunk; our tourists are some of the worst behaved and our football fans still embarrass us at every turn. Our newspapers often make us a laughing stock, while our imperial past does not inspire gratitude or great warmth in much of the world, for some inexplicable reason.
And we have a further disadvantage, monolingualism, aggravated by the Blair government's decision to demote modern language GCSEs, the result of which has been a big drop in pupils taking them. Even if English is the global language, bilingualism has clear benefits in many areas, but it also makes it easier to make friends. In polls of which nationalities we like, the British go simply for, firstly, other English-speaking countries, followed by those nations with the highest proportion of fluent English speakers: the Dutch, Scandinavians and Germans. We have to start teaching our children the basics of continental languages again.
I also hope that, post-Brexit, more will be done to make Britain friendly to visitors. I went to Dover Castle over Christmas and one thing I noticed was that everything is in both English and French. Considering it was built by French speakers, it's appropriate, but it also sends a small but important friendly signal. In contrast I was in nearby Canterbury Cathedral a couple of weeks later; about a third of the voices I overheard were French and yet nothing there is in French except for a sign by the small Huguenot chapel.
Perhaps also, as English Heritage sites are expensive, every year we could allow visitors from one chosen country free access, as a gesture of friendship; it will make them feel special that one time. Maybe we could issue stamp sets celebrating people not from this country but another; why not a series on Dutch artists followed by one on German chemists or Austrian economists. (And, I know I'm in a minority here, but we could win over one friend in the EU by returning the Elgin Marbles to their rightful owners.)
These are all small, trivial things, of course, but in my experience as an Airbnb user these little touches matter. The really important issue will be the status of the 3 million European nationals in Britain, as well as continuing co-operation and free movement at European universities. And, of course, our commitment to protecting Europe, especially its north-eastern border, from hostile powers.
Only if that were all to happen – only then would Daniel Hannan's promise that the EU has 'lost a bad tenant and gained a good neighbour', come true.