DOVER, England — To beat back the marauding hordes of continental Europe, the medieval English built an immense stone castle atop the sheer white cliffs of Dover, with 21-foot-thick walls and royal soldiers on constant watch for anyone who dared trespass upon their blessedly detached isle.
Eight centuries later, the modern English are still not quite sure whether the people across the water are friend or foe.
“Our ancient enemies will never cease to be our enemies, as far as I’m concerned,” said Derek Beech, nodding toward the 20-mile-wide channel that separates this historic but faded British coastal town from the European mainland. “I’d like to think France is an ally, I suppose. But Germany still has ideas of expansion.”
Just to be safe, the rheumy-eyed 83-year-old retiree would prefer to be free of the whole lot of them. On Thursday, he’ll vote to take Britain out of the European Union.
In the waning days of a bitterly fought referendum campaign, E.U. advocates are desperately trying to keep that from happening – perhaps with some success. After a surge for the “leave” side last week, polls released over the weekend show a rebound for “remain.” The contest is now considered a dead heat with just three days of campaigning to go before Britain votes.
But if the pro-E.U. forces are able to stop Brexit, as the U.K. departure is popularly known, it will not be for any love of Europe among the people of Britain.
To Britons, Europe remains a place apart — a landmass off in the hazy distance where invasions are hatched, crises are brewing and bureaucracy is born.
Even here in Dover, where France is visible on a clear day and the shops accept euros from the day-tripping tourists, there’s no sense of shared identity with the continentals.
“European?” asked Beech, incredulous at the idea of counting himself as one. “I don’t even think there is such a thing.”
That lack of emotional attachment to Europe — and indeed the hostility that some feel — helps explain why the country’s citizens might be eager to leave even amid the overwhelming consensus of experts that a departure could be economically, politically and strategically disastrous.
It also underscores why the campaign to keep Britain in the E.U. has been so relentlessly negative. Advocates from Prime Minister David Cameron on down dole out industrial doses of fear and loathing. (A TV interviewer cheekily asked Cameron whether a global recession or World War III would come first after the Brexit vote.) But they seldom speak out for the idea of Europe or appeal to Britons’ sense of shared identity with the continent.
“I love Britain, not Brussels,” Cameron reminds voters at every turn, lest he leave them with the impression that he is pro-European, rather than a Euro-skeptic who thinks Britain has no choice but to keep its ties with the continent, imperfect though it may be.
“I don’t think in the time available in this referendum that we were going to turn Britain into a nation of Europhiles,” said James McGrory, spokesman for the “in” campaign. “I don’t think that’s ever been in the cards.”
Surveys show that only 1 in 7 Brits identify as European. Compare that with Germany, where just 25 percent of citizens say they consider themselves German only, without clarifying that they are also, and perhaps principally, Europeans.
The gap has deep roots, legacies of both geography and history. Here on “this fortress built by Nature,” as Shakespeare called it, nationalism is generally regarded as a force for good: The British built a global empire, beat back Napoleon’s army at Waterloo and twice stopped the Germans from taking over the world.
In Europe, by contrast, dozens of competing strains of nationalism crowded together on a tiny continent have been a constant source of trouble. Europe needed the transnational cooperation embodied by the E.U. to tame the passions after a calamitous war. Britain never felt it did.
“The U.K. has an entirely different narrative from other E.U. countries,” said Richard Whitman, an international relations professor at the University of Kent, which is just down the road from Dover, in Canterbury.
The U.K. only joined the precursors to the E.U., Whitman noted, because it felt it had run out of other options in shaping its postwar, post-empire identity. Its membership was ambivalent from the start.
“There’s never really been a British conversation about Europe, and that’s come through very clearly in this campaign,” he said. “We’re incredibly transactional in our relationship. There’s been no positive, optimistic case made for Europe.”
Simon Bannister is reminded of that every day as he trudges up and down the steep lanes of Dover, an ancient port town wedged dramatically between cliffs and sea, where the legacy of Britain’s historic connections to Europe can be seen in Roman architecture and French street names.
Bannister is on a lonely quest to save Britain’s E.U. membership, going door to door to make the argument for preserving links with the continent looming just over the horizon. Few are willing to listen.
“The mood on the streets is quite aggressive,” said Bannister, a 61-year-old retired teacher who serves on the local district council. “If you say ‘Do you want a leaflet?’ people will say ‘You’re a joke.’ ”
Following the killing on Thursday of Jo Cox, a pro-E.U. member of Parliament, the country has begun to reckon with why the rhetoric of the referendum campaign — particularly on the “leave” side — has turned so hostile and divisive.
But as Bannister can attest, the well of anger and xenophobia in Britain runs deep, fed by politicians who demonize Europe to suit their own ends and tabloid newspapers that whip up nativist sentiment with headlines warning of migrant and refugee “invasions.”
“We don’t have that single message that the Brexiteers have. They say, ‘Take back control.’ It’s that simple. Our arguments are much more subtle,” said Bannister, who briefly lived in France as a young man and does volunteer work in Uganda. “It’s about cooperation and global problems being solved with global solutions. It’s hard to get that over to people.”
The people of Dover, like the town itself, have no shortage of ties to the continent. They ride the two-hour ferry across the channel for vacations in France, or even just to buy duty-free booze. They work on trucks and ships that are endlessly swapping cars, electronics and food. Some even owe their lives to the links between this island and the not-so-distant mainland.
Sam Winwright, 27, is the son of a British father and a French mother. But, proudly sporting a Seattle Seahawks cap, he said he feels more American than European. And he will vote Thursday to take Britain out of the E.U.
“If it weren’t for immigration, my mum and dad wouldn’t have met,” he said as he strolled in a tank top along the town’s pebbly beachfront, the castle looming high above. “But Dover is getting full of people who aren’t from around here. They’re living on benefits and making it harder for me and my girlfriend to find housing.”
If Britain leaves, he said, those people will stop coming. And besides, he has never really trusted the Germans.
“All of the E.U. is coming under German control,” he said. “Instead of bombs, now they’ve got money.”
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.