A citizen of Europe first, British second

The United Kingdom has farthest to travel on the road to integration but it is worth the journey

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I think of myself first as a European citizen and second as a British citizen. We must all declare our colours now that the battle for Britain's future in the European Union has been joined.

If only the UK fitted as smoothly into Europe politically as it does culturally and commercially. While the enormous influence of Continental art, music and literature on us scarcely needs stating, we may not realise that the traffic has always been two-way. The interchange is particularly striking now. A retrospective of Francis Bacon opens in Paris at the Centre Pompidou shortly. At the same time the Jeu de Paume, round the corner, will be full of contemporary British sculpture from Anthony Caro to Damien Hirst. You can hear Benjamin Britten's operas in Paris almost as regularly as in London: contemporary British novels are translated into French and given full reviews almost every week of the year. Indeed, in novels there is a substantial trade imbalance in favour of Britain - about 150 of ours cross the Channel each year compared with, say, 12 or so from the French side.

In Germany, Rowan Atkinson's "Mr Bean" is a cult figure. Sir Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is a much admired regular visitor. Sir Norman Foster is the architect for the rebuilding of the Reichstag in Berlin where Germany's Parliament will meet; it is difficult to think of a more important commission.

In Rome, last week the actress Tilda Swinton created a sensation by taking over the Museo Baracco devoted to classical antiquities. With the ancient objects she placed appropriate plants and then, as she did at the Serpentine Gallery in London recently, inserted herself asleep as a further exhibit, only this time in a sort of botanical glass box, such as Darwin might have used. At once erudite and eccentric, the Italians found the experience "commovente" - moving, touching. British culture is admired for its freshness, its willingness to take risks, its irony, its self-mockery, even its occasional weirdness.

British business finds it relatively straightforward to adapt to Continental ways, as does Continental business here, despite quite big differences. It is not just that the law is Roman rather than Anglo-Saxon or that social regulations are stricter elsewhere in Europe. In business negotiations we really are just as pragmatic as legend suggests and the French relentlessly logical and the Italians interested in grand concepts. Moreover, the closer you get to the Mediterranean, the more individual companies are likely to belong to unofficial families of businesses; once in such a grouping, all the members will help you, otherwise not. These things have to be learnt and, being pragmatic, we are learning them fast.

But the political differences between the UK and the rest of Europe are much more profound. All our partners are, in essence, republics, even if some of them have reserved the job of head of state for their royal family. All have written constitutions in which power is dispersed, with the lines of separation clearly marked. Their citizens have entrenched rights. We have none of these things. All power in the UK has long been concentrated in one place, the House of Commons. For members of Parliament to give up legislative authority to another assembly or to a foreign court will always be bitterly resisted and, when conceded, invariably felt as traumatic.

We did not mind accepting a common tariff in return for a single market within Europe. We were being true to our free trade traditions, but our neighbours have been seeking purely political gains for which they have been willing to pay a much higher price in terms of sovereignty. The list is familiar. After three invasions in a hundred years, France has wished Germany integrated rather than isolated; in turn Germany has peacefully gained leadership of a Continent. Italy has wanted Europe to buttress its weak governments. Spain has seen Europe as a guarantor of its post- Franco democracy. Belgium and the Netherlands have obtained leverage over their big neighbours. Ireland, Portugal and Greece have received handsome subsidies.

British policy has been to engage, unwillingly and unenthusiastically, in a limited amount of political integration in order to protect or enlarge our existing single market benefits. It has been a crabby, uninspiring stance. It has finally brought us the meat crisis with its bad temper, recrimination, distrust and retaliation. Naturally, we did not discuss the matter with our partners as a common problem before making our fateful announcement. We wouldn't.

In a rational world it should be possible to agree which political decisions are best taken at the European level (as rightly advocated on these pages yesterday), which by national parliaments and which by local government. We would also be secure that, at all points, democratic procedures and popular oversight were in place. The EU would be the coping stone of our constitutional arrangements. I would be both a European and a British citizen.

My political aspirations are also European because I want to be part of something that has, or could have, near-superpower influence in the world. Britain lost that status during the Second World War. I think we need it in some form to help us face the international crises we might meet in the future - more likely to be trade wars then armed conflict. If and when, say, Russia, China, Japan or India throw their weight about, I seek the reassurance of belonging to an equally powerful body without having to rely upon being just one of the United States' many allies.

I accept that as a middle-sized country, we still do "punch above our weight". Partly, this comes from being a member of the key clubs. The UK has a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations; we play a leading role in Nato; we are one of the Group of Seven economic powers, which regularly meet to discuss the world economy, and we are the historic leader of the Commonwealth countries. We are also able to project military force overseas, albeit on a modest scale, which earns us a close alliance with the US. And we, like France, draw influence simply from having been around as a nation-state for a long time. But separately or in combination, these relationships do not compare with being an integral part of a strong Europe.

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