How will her pendulum swing?

Two decades ago, the mental momentum in Europe seemed fully in favor of greater unity. Now it's stalled. Will 'Brexit' reverse it?


A few months after the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, I met a British couple traveling on the sleek, new Eurostar train line. On a lark, they had bought a day-trip ticket to and from Paris, leaving Bedfordshire at 5:50 a.m., spending the afternoon at the Eiffel Tower and Champs-Élysées, and planning to be back at their front door by 9 p.m.

The casualness of their adventure seemed a symbol of the optimistic European unity then under way. Cold-war borders had recently crumbled in the east. In the west, an engineering marvel had virtually erased the English Channel. The Eurostar, I wrote in a travel article at the time, would probably “do more than anything else to make the British feel like part of continental Europe.” 

Not quite, as it turns out. But Britain is never quite in Europe or out of it. While the train itself has been a rousing success – passenger traffic has tripled in 20 years – the British are not currently feeling continental. That particular pendulum has swung for centuries. Sometimes Europe is entente cordiale close. Sometimes it is a warring world apart.

Current reasons for British disenchantment with the Continent: the intrusive bureaucracy of the European Union, the sprawling camps of refugees in the French port of Calais clamoring to cross into Britain, fears about terrorism, a general feeling of lost sovereignty.

Tom Peter’s cover story (click here) preps us on the June 23 referendum that will decide whether Britain remains in the European Union. If the “Leave the EU” campaign wins (recent polls have them leading), Britain and the EU will look very different in the years to come. The EU would go on with a tighter form of integration, despite losing one-fifth of its gross domestic product if Britain exits. Britain would face the more dire consequences of cutting trade ties to the EU. Economists warn that British financial markets could be in for a rough ride. Britain would need to quickly reshape its economy to trade more with the rest of the world.

That won’t be easy, but it would be a familiar pendulum swing. Britain is physically close to Europe (London is nearer to Paris than Lyon is) but psychically separate from it. “England,” Charles de Gaulle said in vetoing its application to join the European Economic Community in 1963, “in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries.... She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.”

“Leave the EU” sentiment is running so high that even if Britons vote to remain, it is hard to imagine the country’s relationship with the EU going on as before. Britain and the Continent are united and separated – by geography, history, environment, and a thousand other factors. In some eras, that pulls them together. On June 23, the British will decide which way the pendulum will now swing.

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