The answer is crucial to understanding Britain’s love-hate relationship with its neighbours.
A friend in London told me last week that he was going to Europe on holiday this summer. Of course, he meant that he was crossing the Channel. For many Brits, the term «Europe» is rareley used to include the British Isles.
Even for those who will vote to stay in the EU, if Churchill’s «we» means all the peoples of Europe, then that «we» means them not us. It might be pragmatic to stay in the EU, but that doesn’t indicate any desire to be Europeans and particularly not if it means being part of a European United States.
For many of his fellow countrymen (and women), Churchill’s statement could easily imply that «we» (ie the British) would help build a United States of Europe but not actually be part of it. In other words, a modern version of splendid isolation (when a 19th-century Britain refused to be entangled in European alliances), with the British influencing or even directing European affairs but without intimate involvement.
Such a scenario is the wet dream of those supporting Brexit today, and another Churchill quote is currently being used on social media as reinforcement:
We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.
This time the «we» is very clearly the British and definitely not all Europeans, portraying Churchill as the ultimate Eurosceptic bulldog, defending all things British. Except that this quote dates from 1930, and quite a lot happened between then and his speech 16 years later.
The future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded is black indeed.
Churchill was no stranger to changing his mind (or his political party), so it could be that the war had made him see the light. Perhaps his «we» in Zurich really did include the British as a founding member of a new united Europe. That’s certainly how the anti-Brexit camp see it, who tout Churchill as distinctly pro-European and use one of his last public thoughts on the subject as proof: «The future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded is black indeed.» What he thought of Britain’s future without Europe is not clear.
It’s not only Churchill that is being used by both sides; it’s the facts as well. When I was in England last week, one woman complained that the pro- and anti-Brexit campaigns were using the same facts to support their opposing arguments. «Who am I supposed to believe?» she moaned. For someone wanting to make an informed decision, it can be hard to find the truth when it comes to immigration or imports, free trade or free travel. Too many facts can muddy the waters, especially if those waters are the 33 kilometers of sea that separate Britain from the Continent (as the British often call their neighbours).
That small stretch of water has always made a big difference.
For centuries it was a physical barrier, the last defence against would-be invaders, be that the Spanish Armada in 1588 or Hitler in 1940. Britain might technically no longer be an island, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, but it is still detached emotionally.
It is emotions as much as facts that have always ruled Britain’s view of Europe, and will do so in the forthcoming referendum. For every vote based on the numbers of foreigners or on trade figures, or even roaming charges for mobile phones, there will a vote based on something less tangible: if your Polish builder did a good job, if your sun-lounger in Majorca last year was nabbed by a German, or even if your football team can carry on importing Spanish players. For many, these could well be the crucial factors.
Whatever the result, stay or go, the immediate response in Britain will be the same. Keep calm, have a cup of tea and remember that Europe starts at Calais.