The last trip was just before the EU referendum; through France, Spain and Portugal, preoccupied with the possibility of a leave vote, but knowing somewhere deep inside that it would never, could never happen. So much for gut feelings.
Twelve weeks later and it’s across the channel for the first time since the shock of the leave majority. It feels different. Waiting on the dockside at Dover most of the cars nearby are German and Dutch, and I feel excluded from their confident comradeship. Bright young people look as if they have the world in front of them; they stand tall, chatter and smile; you want to know them, be in their future. Older travellers seem healthy and thoughtful, obviously returning to a comfortable life. In contrast, the occupants of the few British cars look sheepish, smile in a shamefaced way, are older, eat sandwiches, appear wistful.
Halfway across the channel, looking at the other side, the heart lifts. All is not lost. Europe is still there, and I still want to be there, still feel that I will belong. We soon arrive in Dunkerque, where the fences of Calais have been replicated, and images of Fortress Europe come forward. Although there is less police presence than in Calais, very soon we pass the exit that is signposted to Grande Synthe. It is closed off, and a police van is parked on the ramp with blue light flashing.
It gets hotter. A short while later, at the Belgian border, it’s 35C: it has been the hottest September day in the UK for 105 years – a scorcher. Things are hotting up, and the fear of climate change melds with news of other changes already coming as we speed on. Cameron is gone; GCHQ powers are to be increased; Guy Verhofstadt articulates a new two-part narrative for European solidarity; the European Parliament hears Junckers stress a Europe of security – he anticipates tighter borders and a new military collaboration; Luxemburg criticizes Hungary’s refugee policy. The British referendum is part of a broader distress across the continent. No one has any solution, even in the midst of so many glib promises and barefaced lies.
Much of the broader chaos is passing the London media by as Britain remains fixated – as so often in a country where education is closely tied to social class and cultural division – on the major concerns of where you go to school and whether you are good at games.
We overnight in the Netherlands in an area where Aachen, Liège and Maastricht make up a designated Euregio, where you move seamlessly from one country to another, from one language to another, as if it’s the very core of Europe: a bit bland, but hopeful, safe and positive about the future.
At the next stop in Germany, green tendrils in the swimming pond embrace arms and legs, attach but do not threaten. The sun shines. The steam room relaxes muscles. On buildings all around vast arrays of solar panels show a commitment to a communal future; food is produced with customary respect; beer is brewed by methods that take as much pride in producing beer without alcohol as with it. There is trust.
Now comes the news from the UK: Hinkley Point, a backward looking decision based on fear of offending foreign powers, trade unions, and industrial lobbies. My life has felt the impact of the Windscale disaster, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, so this is more bad news. More and more it feels that Britain has stepped back into the past just when it might have made the decision to move forward to a kinder future, and I do not like that one little bit.
It’s a country abandoning responsibility for its people, its environment, and forsaking any regard for its neighbours and the broader world. It’s a culture that gets fat while watching others perform great athletic feats, that treats baking sickly cakes as entertainment while demanding gastric bands; a country that has resurrected the television shows that rely on parochial concerns, class, race and gender based humour and has shunned the cosmopolitan or avant-garde.
Even as there are some small signs of recognition that it’s more complex than they were letting on, there’s not enough attention given to the reasoned arguments of lawyers, parliamentary committees, academic experts and research scientists. The three stooges running the operation for Theresa May seem committed to learning nothing, saying less, and blustering.
Britain crows over gold medals and Great British Bake-Off, but it doesn’t work for me. It won’t work for anyone in the long run. The bread is better in Europe.