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I travelled to a small town in the west of England the other day, to meet an old friend I had not seen in years, curious to hear how she felt about Europe. She is English, my age, and we met when Britain was in the throes of the Thatcher era and France was about to elect its first post-war socialist president. Today, my friend works as a teacher and continues to sympathise with Labour — she associates the Tories with the slashing of budgets for education.

For several reasons, I also expected her to be a convinced pro-European. She teaches French and German, opening the minds of her young charges to a world beyond what she calls the “incredibly insular English mindset”. She spent part of her childhood in France and has kept strong links there. In her teens she went to Germany as an exchange student and discovered German memories of the war.

We are, she and I, very much part of a generation still marked by Europe’s 20th-century history, a high point being the fall of the Berlin Wall. So, when I asked if it mattered to her that the UK remain in the European Union (EU), I was struck by her hesitant reply. “I suppose it’s best to be part of something bigger than ourselves. But Britain should be able to decide about some things on its own, for example, how we treat our prisoners.”

European institutions are such a maze that it is hard to hold it against anyone who’s confused about the difference between the EU and the European court of human rights. The mistake is a small illustration of how badly Britain still needs an informed and comprehensive debate about the pluses and minuses of staying in the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron has fuelled popular frustration with Europe by painting the European court as an encroachment on British sovereignty. But it is doubtful whether Labour has made an excellent job of convincing many of its supporters that Europe acts as an essential pillar of British influence and values.

Three weeks away from a general election, which could return the Conservatives and bring a 2017 referendum on EU membership, it is baffling to see what scant mention there is of Europe in the campaign. Yet, Britain’s fate as a power and the fate of Europe as a world actor have perhaps never been so intimately linked. In a global world, there can only be global or collective solutions.

Many of the issues that people say they care about, from economic competition to national security, immigration and the environment, can only be seriously addressed if people act together. Europe, with all its flaws, is still the main vehicle that nations can rely on to defend their interests in a world that has become more complex, competitive and unpredictable. How else can one negotiate seriously with a rising China, or deal with the refugee crises from Africa or the Middle East that risk deeply affecting European societies?

Divisions, breakups, Brexits and Grexits will only make Europe weaker and its democracies more exposed. The illusion of going it alone, the little England syndrome, has many of Britain’s partners extremely worried. Many continental officials I speak to do not dare say so publicly, but are scared stiff that without Britain, the EU project will simply collapse within this century. But at the same time, they will not accept the idea of EU treaties being renegotiated by British blackmail. This is the quandary we are in.

In the absence of any positive discourse about Europe, it is probably fear of the unknown that will keep us together

But it is also worth putting some things in perspective. British Euroscepticism is not anything new. Nor is it simplistic. Recall the famous conversation in 1944, just before D-Day, between Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle. Every time Britain has to “decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we shall choose”, said Churchill. What is perhaps less well-known about this episode is (as described by De Gaulle in his memoirs) that after Churchill spoke, Anthony Eden looked sceptical and Ernest Bevin, a Labour minister, came up to De Gaulle and said in a loud voice: “Take note that the prime minister has spoken for himself, and in no way for the whole cabinet.” Churchill, of course, went on to make his famous 1946 Zurich speech, calling for the “United States of Europe”, although he didn’t explicitly include Britain in that vision.

The European construct has always been divisive in Britain and has cut across party lines. In 1975, it was a divided Labour government that held a referendum (67 per cent voted ‘yes’ to stay in). In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, despite all her “Give me my money back” slogans, contributed to building the European project. The 1985 Single European Act transferred more power to Brussels than the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

Britain’s political class is not alone in being tortured by its relationship with Europe. If you look at French politics, the same can be said : Left and Right-wing traditional parties have been split for years, with strong sovereignist pressures on both sides. De Gaulle only really became interested in Europe after France lost Algeria. Hollande has enjoyed stabbing the European Commission almost as much as Cameron. Domestic politics trump European much of the time.

Yet, the great difference today is that the big picture should count much more than parochial considerations. Europe faces huge existential challenges. Visionary language is what is needed to reassure citizens. In the absence of any positive discourse about Europe, it is probably fear of the unknown that will keep us together. As my English friend says, it is just best to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd