As an incorrigible pro-European, I am contemplating for the first time in my life the real possibility that Britain might up and leave the European Union. Until now, that definitive parting of the ways had seemed a prospect this country would often toy with, but in the end shy away from. People grumbled, but in a resigned sort of a way. Membership of the European Community, now the European Union, was a fact of life. Now, I am not so sure. Nor – which is perhaps more to the point – am I certain that leaving would necessarily be such a bad thing.
Britain's perpetual carping from the sidelines has always been corrosive. What is new is the scale and immediacy of the danger this presents – on both sides of the Channel. Let's start on this side. David Cameron is just the latest Conservative Prime Minister to lead a party that seems set on tearing itself apart over Europe, maybe even while it is in government.
In one way, Cameron is fortunate. The coalition with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats gives him someone to blame for what Eurosceptics in his own party denounce as his softness on Europe. It also gives him a solid governing majority, something John Major signally lacked. In short, there should be no compelling reason for him to bend to the Eurosceptics' will, but he has. First, after the election when he honoured his promise to take Conservatives out of the European Parliament's centre-right alliance; then at the EU summit in December, when he ruled Britain out of joint measures to preserve the eurozone, and now, when he dangles the possibility of a referendum on Europe, but not quite yet.
It may be that Euroscepticism is part of Mr Cameron's worldview – though his approach generally seems more pragmatic than ideological. More, though, it may betray his growing fears of a Ukip surge at the next election that would deprive the Conservatives of the overall majority they crave. If so, the Prime Minister's tendency to look over his shoulder towards his Eurosceptics will only grow.
Of course, that calculation could be wrong. If Ed Miliband establishes his credibility as Labour leader and the Continental tilt to the left extends over here, the balance of forces in British politics might look quite different by the next election. But the reality remains that, for all the hopes of us Europhiles down the years, a large section of the UK electorate remains profoundly unconvinced that Britain belongs in Europe. The crisis in the eurozone has only cemented their view that the EU is at best a Utopian idea dreamt up by unaccountable elites, and at worst a foreign plot to subjugate glorious Britannia.
That this is so undoubtedly constitutes a failure of my, "European" generation – the first to be able to travel, work and sell in most of Europe unhindered – to convince our compatriots that EU membership has brought benefits. But perhaps the task was always hopeless. Perhaps the British are, simply, by temperament an island nation whose psychology reflects its geography, consigned forever to Europe's outer edge. Perhaps De Gaulle – who, after all, spent time "over here" – was essentially right about Britain's otherness.
Seen from the opposite side of the Channel, the reasons why the British should be written off as Europeans look at least as compelling as they do from here. France and Germany have made largely self-interested efforts to help Britain feel indispensable – France on defence; Germany on the single currency – with only fleeting success. Most of the time, Britain has been a reluctant and self- absorbed negotiator, demanding entry, then continued membership, almost entirely on its own terms. It has shown little recognition that others were there first and that any collective enterprise demands some sacrifice of sovereignty – a point successive French leaders have conceded openly.
To give Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, their due, it was pragmatism that marked their first response to the euro crisis. These born-Conservatives found themselves paradoxically arguing for the survival of a strong euro, because of the impact its collapse could have on the UK economy. Our economies are now so entwined that a shock to one cannot but affect the other, in or out of the euro.
Germany, and to a lesser extent France, might briefly mourn the departure of the UK because of the heft another big economy brings to the table (so long as it is on their side). But a big economy that does not really want to be there, that tries to obstruct some of the agreed measures to save the euro, whose presence only fuels discontent in the ranks – what use is that? Whether or not what eventually transpires is a two-tier Europe, Britain has opted out of the central economic decision-making. Would it not be more honest for us to depart altogether, leaving the rest of Europe to reconstitute itself without the constant distraction of the British cuckoo in its nest?
That the UK could go it alone is beyond doubt. If Norway and Switzerland can, so can Britain. Let's repatriate our EU contributions; halt the flow of funds from Brussels; stop incorporating EU legislation, and take our Eurocrats off their gravy train. We might want also to leave the Council of Europe, whose court at Strasbourg is a perpetual irritation. Why not go the whole hog – bring on the new age of British isolation, even if it did mean we would not have Europe to blame?
But before all that, there would be a referendum – the referendum which the UK should arguably have held at the very start, and which might then have pre-empted complaints that the people have never had their say on Europe, only on staying in.
Let's have that referendum, and the sooner the better. Why wait for the next Parliament? Let's drop the pretence that it is banking or the press or MPs' expenses that most exercise British minds and finally engage in the fight that has poisoned our politics for nigh-on half a century. We would learn during the campaign how far Britain really was bound to Europe, the truth about money flows and legislative reach, and whether Little Englanders – sorry, Eurosceptics – really command a majority or simply make more noise.
If, when the counting is done, the No votes prevail, we should hang out the flags and make the best of it. But when the arguments are really heard, it might just be that the British public – in hope of better or for fear of worse – will spring the ultimate surprise.