The debate about Brexit has been dominated by abstract — and increasingly ugly — arguments. This has made it easy to forget that, for millions of people, the stakes are deeply personal. Though I no longer live in Britain, and have no imminent plans to return, I am one of them.
Back in the fall of 2000, I came to Britain as an idealistic and somewhat naïve 18-year-old to study political history at Trinity College, Cambridge. My years in Cambridge changed who I am, how I see the world, what I aspire to, and what I do.
Born to Polish parents in Germany, I had family in Denmark and Sweden, and spent many childhood summers in Italy. I knew the deep differences between those places. And yet they seemed to me connected by the scars of a divided past, the bond of shared values, and hopes for a united future.
So, when I arrived in Cambridge, it came as a shock to see just how different Britain was and just how little the people I met seemed to think of themselves as European.
"Oh, you're an overseas student," new acquaintances would say when I told them I'd grown up in Germany. "No," I'd say, repeating that I'm from Germany, not Australia. "At most, I'm a through-tunnel student."
A lot of things got lost in translation. Much of the time, I knew the words my new friends were saying, but nearly as often I struggled to grasp their meaning. I did not yet know England well enough to get their humor, to catch their references, or to notice that a subtle vocal inflection could turn what sounded like an innocuous compliment into a cutting putdown.
In Britain, the national sense of humor relies on the assumption that the speaker shares a worldview and lifelong experiences with his audience. It is a culture built on the knowing nudge, one that is only possible among people with a deep cultural bond. That is one of the most wonderful things about it.
And yet, Britain also has a lot to offer to Europe, and stands to gain as much from uncomprehending continentals (like me) who insist on making their way to this peculiar island.
In my own case, the opportunity to study at Cambridge changed me more radically than just about anything else I've ever done. The close encounter with a culture that turned out to be more novel to me than I had anticipated expanded my horizons beyond what I had thought possible: my friendships with phenomenally talented people who came from worlds so entirely unlike my own; the clarity and simplicity of argument favored by my tutors; and, perhaps most importantly of all, the sense that India, Australia and America are as natural interlocutors as Germany or France.
If Britain had not been in the EU, I would never have been able to afford studying at Cambridge. If Britain decides to leave the EU, thousands of ambitious teenagers across Europe will no longer be able to afford it.
This is, of course, very much a first-world problem—and one that, given the vast stakes of the referendum, pale by comparison to other considerations. Brexit might lead to a destabilizing financial crisis that will hit the poorest hardest. It could boost the populist backlash against liberal democracy and hasten the disintegration of the trans-Atlantic alliance. In Britain, it would, almost certainly, amplify the inflammatory voices of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
But it is still worth remembering how many real lives the EU has transformed. Without Britain's membership in the EU, I would never have met some of my closest friends. The same is true, in reverse, for innumerable Britons. Even among the majority of the residents who have never lived abroad, many would never have met their spouse, or conceived their children, had it not been for the EU. And then there are the millions who have spent a year studying in Vienna or Stockholm, who transferred to Frankfurt or Paris for work, who have retired to the Costa Brava or are hoping to spend their golden years in the golden fields of the Provence.
Over the years since my time at Cambridge, I have become much more skeptical about European integration than I once was. The more time I spent actually living in countries other than Germany, the more I realized how different they are from each other. In order to preserve the most important achievements of the European Union—like the life-changing freedom to move across national borders for work or study—political elites finally have to disavow the deeply unpopular goal of "ever-closer union."
This is a lesson Britain helped to teach me, and it is a lesson that, with its help, Brussels is beginning to heed. The UK can help to improve the EU — not despite but rather because of its deep reluctance to rush into a European super-state. By the same token, the EU can enrich the UK — not despite but rather because of the deep cultural differences between Britain and the rest of Europe.
Yascha Mounk is a Lecturer at Harvard University and a Fellow at New America. He is the author of Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany and has written for CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, and the Nation. The views expressed in this commentary are his.