As soon as parliament finished its work, I took my children off through the Channel Tunnel, across the Alps to Italy and back, to stay with friends in different parts of France. As always, the mainland Europe I encounter seems to be on the dark side of the moon compared with the European Union we read about in most of our press. Millions of Brits now holiday or work in another European country. And Britain is home to millions of EU citizens--250,000 French, 60,000 Danes and who knows how many Irish passport-holders?--all valued taxpayers in Europe's most successful economy.
Like most baby-boom boys from suburban, neither-rich-nor-poor families, I didn't really do Europe until university. But how do I explain to my children what Europe was like 30 or 40 years ago? Half of it under communist rule. Spain, Portugal and Greece under generals. The Ireland of my schoolday holidays much poorer than Britain and sending half its male workers abroad to find work.
Even when, three decades ago, I started to get to know bits of Europe, it was a very different place. You needed to show passports to cross frontiers. Queues of lorries waited to have their cargoes inspected at border posts. The corner of Tuscany where I have visited friends since the early 1970s was then rutted with dusty, unpaved roads, its peasant population working as gardeners, cooks and servants for the rich Brits who bought villas there.
This summer, I drove between France and Italy as easily as one might drive between California and Oregon, or from England into Scotland. Tuscany's dirt-track roads between the sunflower fields are now black and shiny, and the scooters and tiny Fiats have been replaced by air-conditioned saloons taking the post-peasant Tuscan population to better-paid jobs. The dirty, stinking, fishing village beach where I risked a Mediterranean sea bathe in the 1970s now flies the blue flag of EU cleanliness. Does anyone remember what some British beaches were like before Brussels insisted on clean sand and water? Ireland is now a country of immigration, not emigration, with a per capita income rivalling that of France. In 1960, Spain had the same GDP per head as Mexico; today it is three times richer than its transatlantic friend. Twenty years ago, the biggest immigrant community in France was Portuguese. Today, they have gone home. Like Spain and Ireland--once provider of low-paid workers to northern Europe--Portugal has become rich and home once more to its native-born.
The euro is used everywhere. It has become a shared currency allowing people, businesses, investors and trade union negotiators to compare prices in a way that the multi-currency Europe of only a few years ago prevented.
As I drive through mainland or Irish Europe on holiday, or in my travels to EU capitals, I search in vain for the dreaded European superstate. Where is the Brussels bulldozer stamping out national identity? France seems more than ever French, Italy as profoundly Italian as ever I remember her. De Gaulle once asked how one could govern a country …