Dominic Lawson: Europe will always be a foreign land for the British

'The Continent' is what we called it, with the understanding we were not of it
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The Independent Online

You might have thought that it is only the red-top tabloid press which regards any European with an unfamiliar surname as inherently ridiculous. If so, you would be wrong. Even the more serious BBC political programmes, such as Newsnight, have been cracking juvenile jokes over the identity of the new President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy. Rumpy-pumpy! Rumplestiltskin! Cue smirks in the studio, if not general hilarity.

The BBC's political correspondents also joined in the view of the British press that Mr Van Rompuy is a "nonentity" – apparently based on nothing more than the idea that anyone who happens to be the Prime Minister of Belgium must by definition be a nobody. When even the BBC – which I'd always thought to be part of the metropolitan centre-left Europhile consensus – carries on like this, then it's clear how very different this country is from the Continent.

"The Continent" is how we used to describe the European mainland – with the explicit understanding that we were not of it: one would "go to the Continent" for holidays, rather than "stay at home". Although the phrase has now dropped out of common usage, I'm convinced that the British will never be, as a people, viscerally European, simply because of the geographic fact that we are separated from that mainland by an expanse of water.

It is something so obvious that it is never mentioned in sophisticated political discussions about Britain's "European identity" (or the lack of it); but this sense of physical separateness is hard-wired into our consciousness: after all, every time a British child looks at a map of Europe he or she is reminded of the fact.

There were many who felt that this sense of separateness, so ingrained in national identity, would be destroyed by the building of the Channel Tunnel. Francois Mitterand, the French President who persuaded Margaret Thatcher to agree to the scheme, certainly thought so. His psychoanalyst revealed in Rendez-vous: The Psychoanalysis of Francois Mitterand that the then President, smarting from the constant bullying he had received at the hands of the British Prime Minister, had told him: "I will have the last word. Her island, it is me who will destroy it. I will take my revenge. I will tie Britain to the continent despite its natural tendency for isolation. How? I will build a tunnel under La Manche. I will succeed where Napoleon III failed.... I will flatter Thatcher's shopkeeper spirit. I will tell her that the welding to the Continent will not cost the Crown one kopeck. She will not resist this resonant argument."

Nor did she, having indeed been satisfied that British taxpayer would not pay a penny. The only notable figure who seemed to share Mitterand's view that the Channel Tunnel would destroy the unique independence of the British people was the Prince of Wales. The former political correspondent of the Independent, Colin Brown, revealed some years ago that he, along with other senior members of the parliamentary lobby, had attended a lunch with the Prince of Wales just after Mrs Thatcher had announced her support for the Channel Tunnel: the heir to the throne told the astonished journalists that he was thinking of calling a national referendum on the matter – because, if it went ahead, "Britain will no longer be an island."

As we now know, Mitterand's hopes – and Prince Charles' fears – were not realised. As someone who lives in East Sussex, the Channel Tunnel is conveniently close, so I have often used it to buy food and wine from the north of France; but I have never lost even a sliver of the sense that this is a bit of an adventure and that I am "going abroad".

On the other hand, if I were a citizen of Belgium, which shares long land borders with The Netherlands, France, Luxembourg and Germany, I would feel no sense of going abroad as I drove back and forth across invisible frontiers: indeed, as a country with three official languages, Belgium is a kind of European melting pot all of its own.

Apart from the general hilarity at the idea that any Belgian could be significant, there has been another reminder of this country's peculiar un-European distinctiveness: I refer to the reaction to Pope Benedict's offer of special orders for disaffected Anglicans unwilling to accept the introduction of women bishops into the Church of England.

It quite surprised me how apparently sensible Anglican figures have seen this as some kind of sinister takeover bid by the Bishop of Rome: for example the Reverend George Pitcher, the Religion Editor of the Telegraph Media Group, wrote last week that: "The Church of England must square up to a newly rampant Rome... we're facing a vigorous challenge to our established Church's doctrinal authority in our own country. I'll say this to [the Pope], even if Dr [Rowan] Williams won't: Come and have a go if you're hard enough. We have, after all, been here before."

Coo-er! It's 1533 all over again. Or perhaps not. I look forward to reading what George has to say if or when a future British Government dare put forward a Bill rescinding that part of the Act of Settlement which declares: "Any person reconciled with the See or Church of Rome, or who shall marry a Papist, shall be excluded and be for ever incapable to inherit, possess or enjoy the Crown."

Not surprisingly, one of the Daily Telegraph's bloggers quickly managed to join the dots between the newly-imposed "President of Europe", Mr Van Rompuy, and the Bishop of Rome: "The real conspiracy is that as Van Rompuy is Catholic, his real boss is the Pope. The real EU HQ is at the Vatican." Meanwhile, the National Secular Society joined in the conspiracy theories, describing Van Rompuy, with visceral contempt, as "one of the Pope's little toilers".

It is in fact true that Van Rompuy is a serious Catholic, the author of a book entitled Christendom, who has opposed Turkish entry into the EU on the grounds that "The universal values which are in force in Europe and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."

You certainly can't imagine any British politician saying that; but, again, this is a reflection of the fact that this country is very different from Europe: our party of the right – the Conservatives – has not much in common with its equivalents on the Continent, almost invariably calling themselves "Christian Democrat".

Those right-of-centre parties – such as the one to which Van Rompuy belongs – are explicitly Catholic in affiliation, and indeed do see close contiguity between specifically Catholic social teaching and the political principles governing European law. It is precisely because the Conservatives have never been part of this intellectual movement that it was even possible for David Cameron to remove his party in Europe from the mainstream right-of-centre grouping in the EU Parliament.

Many readers, who are neither Roman Catholic nor Eurosceptic, will see all this as mere obscurantism; but the fact remains that according to most opinion polls, approximately half the British population believes this country should not be a member of the EU at all – a much higher proportion than hold such a view in other member states. After almost 37 years as a signatory of the Treaty of Rome, we remain the awkward outsiders, defiantly monoglot, our Left and Right still managing to find common cause in suspicion of dark plots emanating from the Vatican. No wonder Dan Brown does so well over here.