One January, more than a decade ago, I was attending an industry conference in Paris. The organisers for some reason had scheduled a debate about the EU. A well-known Eurosceptic whose blushes I shall spare was scheduled to speak but failed to show. The chairman (not the most impartial I ever met) announced from the stage that the event couldn't proceed because he didn't know anyone else who opposed the EU!
Mrs Paine had persuaded me to make a New Year resolution never to mention the EU again so I sat quietly and pondered how I might pass the hour thus liberated. But a German client and friend of mine in the audience pointed at me and said "this guy can do it". So up I went. My opponent was better prepared but in all modesty the contest wasn't too unequal. I had talked about the EU a lot. Living as I then did in Continental Europe, many of my friends, colleagues and clients were often keen to hear a viewpoint never seriously presented in their own countries.
It passed off well enough but the interesting part came later. That evening in the bar, European after European came up to talk to me. A Greek gent said that he had never met a Eurosceptic and wanted to shake my hand. He didn't share my views but could see my point. He congratulated me on my impromptu performance, as did a succession of others. I was clearly a political curiosity, but all the discussions were open minded and friendly.
One French gentleman said to me that if he were British he would feel the same. His reasoning was that in Britain we occasionally had governments inclined more or less to free markets. "In France", he said, "all possible governments are bureaucratic and hostile to business. We have no hope of a Thatcher to privatise our economy or roll back our state. To you, the EU is bureaucratic and socialistic. To us, it is our best hope of holding back the Énarques who would crush all enterprise. From a French perspective it is a liberalising influence."
To me the EU is not a life or death or even a moral matter. I despise its anti-democratic aspects of course but mostly I think it simply doesn't suit us, our global trading and our modern service economy. For most of its history (although opinion polls suggest sentiment is moving against it even in its heartlands) it has suited most member states well enough. I really don't understand though why progressives who laud diversity and localism in other contexts (eg devolution within the socially and economically much more uniform UK) have such a blind spot when it comes to European integration. One size doesn't fit all as between the frankly indistinguishable Scots and English and yet it does between Brits and Bulgarians who are economically leagues apart?
Am I being too cynical in suspecting that they simply have the same analysis as my French friend that long-ago evening, in that they would like to use the EU to subvert the classical liberalism of Britain, just as he used it to subvert French statism?