But as the shiraz flows in the hotel’s plush bar, and talk turns – as it often does these days – to Britain’s looming referendum on whether to leave the bloc, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
By quitting, Britain could save billions of pounds in annual contributions, something that would pay for a lot of hospitals, he says. The British, he adds, really want a free trade agreement with continental Europe, nothing more, nothing less. And surely, he argues, it would be in the interests of continental Europeans to keep markets open so that German carmakers can export to us.
At a dinner party in west London, it is very much the same story. The man working in financial services describes the European Union as a disaster zone and asks why on earth Britain should want to remain. And even over tapas – yes tapas – an Oxford University-educated friend, who worked in European Union institutions, says that he has not made up his mind how to vote.
Anecdotally at least, a surprising number of well-educated, metropolitan, professional, people appear to be flirting with a vote for a British withdrawal, known as Brexit. And it ought not to be like this.
According to a Youguv poll university graduates are strongly pro-EU, while those with fewest educational qualifications, favour Brexit.
That is also the assumption of most politicians, one that helps to explain why the populist right wingers of UKIP, which campaigns for a Brexit and against immigration, have recently made inroads in working class areas or in England’s decaying seaside towns.
It is in such places that voters feel left behind by a globalising economy that appears to exacerbate inequality. Less skilled workers, after all, are at the sharp end of immigration, and face competition for unskilled jobs from highly-motivated workers from eastern Europe who have the right to work in Britain thanks to European free movement rules. Working class Britons are unlikely to benefit from the right to work or live abroad.
In terms of age groups, the surveys point to something that sets Britain apart from much of continental Europe. Voters under the age of 30 support continued membership by almost two-to-one, while support falls to 58% among people in their thirties and 52% among those in their forties. Then, amongst older people (who, incidentally, are more likely to vote), Brexit supporters are in the majority: by 52-48% among those in their fifties and by 56-44% among the over sixties.
In Germany, by contrast, older people tend to be more loyal to the European Union because they – or at least their parents – experienced the disastrous aftermath of the Second World War.
In Britain, where the country’s defiance of Nazism is seen by many as, in Winston Churchill’s phrase as its “finest hour,” there is much less gratitude for Europe’s role in cementing ties among former enemies. There remains a bedrock of nostalgia for the days when Britain had colonies, albeit a declining number, and still basked in the last, fading, rays of a glorious imperial afterglow. In those times the continent of Europe was associated with danger and insecurity, an echo felt by some today with a migration crisis and the threat of terrorism.
By contrast it is younger and better educated people who tend to see more advantages in membership – for example the possibility of being able to travel, live and work abroad.
But why is the campaign to remain in the bloc finding it hard to get its message across, not just to those who were always likely to be hostile, but to some of those who ought to be receptive?
One answer is that many of the advantages of membership, such as the right to work, live or retire in continental Europe, are now taken for granted by voters. They tend to assume – probably incorrectly – that arrangements to which they are accustomed would continue whatever the outcome of the referendum.
To an extent that is a by-product of an understandable ignorance. The European Union’s workings are, by definition, complex, designed to reconcile the interests of 28 different nations. Such nuances tend not to be reflected or explained in the British press, with its love of drama and hyperbole, and its ideological hostility to the European Union.
The Brexit campaign, with its appeal to regain independence, restore control of immigration, and look outward to the rest of the world, has a bold simplicity.
Over breakfast in a London cafe, one French member of the European Parliament, expresses her concern over the outcome. “If you hold a referendum on Europe in a country where much of the press is controlled by Rupert Murdoch,” she says, referring to the media tycoon who owns the Sun, the Sunday Times and the Times, “then: good luck.”
The Eurosceptics usually have better slogans and soundbites, she added, because explaining the counter-arguments is complicated. “I can reply, but they need just one sentence, and I need five or six to explain.”
The broadcast media, with its commitment to objectivity, plays a crucial role of course, but, even here, things are not straight-forward. Now the referendum campaign is underway, the BBC is required to be scrupulously even-handed, which in practice means that every claim needs to be balanced by a counter-claim. So sensible, fact-based, arguments about the consequences of Brexit are therefore routinely “balanced” by suggestions from the “out” camp that supporters of membership are “scaremongering.”
With limited knowledge of its workings, many Britons tend to see the European Union more as an international club – perhaps a bit like the G8 – than as the legal foundation of many of the country’s economic ties, developed through four decades of integration, and one that would take years to unravel and negotiate.
And, fundamentally, Britons tend to see their relationship to the bloc through a transactional lens.
The six signatories of the Treaty of Rome, that created the forerunner of today’s European Union, had all been aggressors, occupied or invaded during World War II. Several other countries that joined later, like Greece and Spain, saw membership of the bloc as a symbol –
and guarantee – of democracy, as did former Communist nations that joined in 2004 and 2007.
But Britain began its journey of European integration in 1973 at a time when it was the sick man of the continent, being outperformed, economically, by its near neighbors. It felt it had no option but to clamber aboard the process of European integration if it was not to be left trailing behind.
Now, following the eurozone debt crisis, that situation has been reversed, and critics of the European Union have capitalized on that change by re-aligning their arguments.
Sipping coffee in the atrium of the building where many British lawmakers work, the Conservative Member of Parliament, Philip Davies, a leading proponent of Brexit, describes how Eurosceptics have put less focus on their argument that the E.U. threatens sovereignty.
Instead of complaining that Britain risks being sucked into a “superstate,” they increasingly identify the risk as being “shackled to an economic corpse.” Rather than focusing on trading within a stagnant Europe, Britain should be concentrating on trade with the faster growing developing economies, he argues.
A former supermarket manager, Mr. Davies was elected to parliament first in 2005 when, he says, he was the only Conservative MP who was then willing to say clearly that Britain should quit the bloc.
“For me it wasn’t about banging on about sovereignty and democracy – important though they are,” he said. “I wanted to make the argument for why we would as a country be better off out of the E.U.,” he said.
“Our strongest suit isn’t sovereignty and democracy, although that is a strong suit, but it’s the economy,” he added.
That is overstating the case. Even those who favor an exit concede that there would be an economic price to pay in the short-term – a thought that may cause many Britons to pull back from the brink of Brexit. It seems increasingly clear that a negotiating exit would take years, bringing uncertainty that would prolong an economic downturn.
A grudging vote for Britain to stay in the bloc, prompted by worries about the economic risks that a Brexit would surely bring, remains the most likely outcome.
Yet it cannot be taken for granted and the success of the Brexit campaign reflects the fact that, to many British eyes, the European Union now, simply, looks a worse deal. And that is a message that can be heard echoing, not just around down-at-heel districts where UKIP prospers, but sometimes through the bar of London’s Savoy Hotel.
Stephen Castle is correspondent in London bureau of New York Times.
Journalist i New York Times.