VISIT London and there is no doubt about the city’s global credentials. The mix of languages, ethnicities, food and music is more vivid, more proudly visible than in any other European city.
Post Olympics London stands prouder still, its streets spotless, restaurants livelier than ever and its inhabitants, young, dynamic and on the move.
My latest visit was as wonderful as ever. But it ended on a bitter-sweet note as the talk turned to the European Union and Britain’s increasingly uncomfortable relationship with Brussels.
Confessing to British friends — even cab drivers — that you live in Brussels always provokes sneers and sarcasm. Brussels equals well-paid Eurocrats and intrusive policies, people tell me. “Why can’t they just mind their own business?” a British friend asks. “We don’t like being told what to do.”
The anger is new but the truth is that London and Brussels have never really got along. When I was a young reporter, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher kept us on our toes with her shrill cries of “we want our money back”.
Later, Tony Blair for a bit talked of energising Europe, making Britain a more active and engaged partner. When push came to shove, however — as it often does in British-EU relations — we all knew that Blair like his predecessors loved America more.
Today, London and Washington may not talk as warmly of their ‘special relationship’ as in the Thatcher years, but David Cameron does not really love Europe very much either. And now the talk is turning to the nuclear option of Britain actually leaving the EU.
For many on the continent, the prospect of a ‘UK exit’ appears much less dangerous than a ‘Greek exit’. After all, Britain is not a member of the single currency and eurozone members are tired of Cameron’s almost-gloating reaction to the crisis facing the single currency. Cameron’s remarks at the end of June on a possible referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has made the issue more urgent and pressing than ever.
Mr Cameron told the BBC: “I don’t think it is in Britain’s interests to leave the EU but I do think what it is increasingly becoming the time for is a new settlement between Britain and Europe, and I think that new settlement will require fresh consent.”
I am hoping the ‘secession’ will not happen. I know that I would be desolate if Britain did leave Europe. The EU without Britain would be a morose and sad place. London attracts people — and money — from the world over. I am heartened by Britain’s anti-protectionist, pro free-trade policies.
British officials have been in the forefront of demands for improved trade preferences for Pakistan. And it was because of a joint push by London and Washington that policymakers in Brussels finally agreed to upgrade relations with Pakistan and pay more attention to Asia generally.
Britain can also teach many in Europe about celebrating diversity and multiculturalism. While the rest of Europe frets over headscarves worn by Muslim women, Britain employs female customs officials and policewomen who cover their heads with aplomb.
Britain also needs Europe for business, exports and in order to be part of a big and important regional bloc which — yes, believe it or not — counts for more on the global stage than Britain.
I have no doubt that Britain’s departure would make Europe a less interesting and less colourful place. Others do not always agree, however.
As the BBC pointed out recently, some European countries and leaders would like Britain to stay in the EU, others consider that the country’s eventual departure is all but inevitable, and a third group would positively welcome such a development.
The consensus appears to be that as EU members opt for more integration as one way of resolving the euro crisis, Britain, which has always opposed any moves to create a federal Europe, will head for the exit.
German analysts say that Chancellor Angela Merkel is “torn both ways”. Her intuitive preference for Britain to stay may come to be outweighed by the “overwhelming pressure” she faces to resolve the euro crisis.
Many in Berlin believe it is in the German interest to keep Britain in the EU at “almost any cost” and emphasise that European defence without the UK “would be a knife without a blade”. Some French-language commentators, however, say Britain is on its way out of the EU and complain about the “growing hysteria” in the British debate on the EU.
Certainly, British politicians are out of sync with calls in other EU states for more integration. They want a ‘common market’ to boost intra-European trade and investments but balk at the idea of more attempts to share sovereignty and create tighter political links between the 27 EU states.
As such, there is no sympathy in London for the likes of José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who has floated the idea of setting up a federation of states and says the Commission will begin work on a new treaty very shortly. Barroso will probably soldier on with his plans, regardless of the outcome of a British referendum and cries of protest from across the Channel.
For most of us, things won’t change radically either. As now, we will have to show our passports when entering Britain. We will have to change our euros into pounds. We will have to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.
Like it or not, despite the ‘us’ and ‘them’ discourse favoured by politicians when talking about cross-Channel relations, Britain and Europe need each other. Let’s hope both sides realise this interdependence before it’s too late.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.