I recently read a delightful book of love letters to Europe. And it made me contemplate my love for Britain. It has just occurred to me that when you joined the European Economic Community I was in one of your schools. Not on your soil, mind you, but in Italy. Saint George’s British International School in Rome, to be precise. I was 12 years old and still learning English. That year I also dressed up in a kimono, as one of the “gentlemen from Japan” in the Mikado, the school play. Mrs Alcock encouraged me not to sing too loudly, so that my false notes would be less audible. But she kept me on stage. I loved it. Like I loved being part of the chorus in My Fair Lady the next year and the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland the year after.
More than 40 years have passed since then. So much has happened. My family went back to the Netherlands, I studied there and in France. I got married and became a father, did my military service, worked as a diplomat, divorced and married again, got elected to parliament, served in government and am now in the European commission. Britain was always there. As part of me. Being in one of your schools made me more Dutch than before. Because there is no better way to be made aware of your own culture than by being immersed in another. And at the same time, that immersion leaves traces. What you inhale and absorb remains: as an extra layer, a sediment that partly merged with what was already there and partly remains distinguishable and unique.
I know you now. And I love you. For who you are and what you gave me. I’m like an old lover. I know your strengths and weaknesses. I know you can be generous but also miserly. I know you believe yourself to be unique and different. And of course you are in many ways, but perhaps less than you think. You will never stop referring to the rest of us as “the continent”. It helps you to create the distance you think you need. But it also prevents you from seeing that we all need a bit of distance between us. All European nations are unique. Our differences are a source of admiration, surprise, discomfort, misunderstanding, ridicule, caricature and, yes, love.
In the best of times these differences make us the most creative, productive, peaceful and prosperous of families. In the worst of times our differences are manipulated to instil fear, to propagate superiority, to set one family member against the other. Things then quickly get out of hand. We all are also very, very good at that. That is our legacy. That too is who we are. And as a family we have a duty to promote the best of times and keep the worst of times at bay. So far, for all its faults, the EU has been the most successful tool to achieve that goal.
You have decided to leave. It breaks my heart, but I respect that decision. You were in two minds about it, like you have always been in two minds about the EU. I wish you had stuck to that attitude, it served you well and it kept all of us in better shape. Was it necessary to force the issue? Not at all. But you did. And the sad thing is, I see it is hurting you. Because the two minds will still be there, even after you have left. In the process so much unnecessary damage has been done to you, and all of us. And I fear more will follow.
Truth be told, I felt deeply hurt when you decided to leave. Three years later I am just sad that a member of our family wants to sever our ties. But at the same time I find comfort in the thought that family ties can never really be severed. We’re not going away and you will always be welcome to come back.
•Frans Timmermans is executive vice-president of the European commission