At the tail end of 2016, as Europeans adjusted to the reality that Donald Trump had won the presidential election, I found myself having two very different conversations in Europe.
One was with my Brussels and Berlin friends from what some might derisively term the 'educated elite'. They were scared, talking about what the result meant for Europe and how things on the 'old continent' were about to change.
Then there was the conversation I found myself having with people I just met, or acquaintances - people who don't follow politics or world events very closely. "What do you think about Trump?" they snickered, as if he was entirely my problem and not theirs. They expected a reaction of, "I'm so embarrassed for my country" or "things are going to be bad in my homeland". I've told them the entire global order is about to be thrown into chaos, starting first here in Europe. They stared back at me in confusion. Surely, Trump is America's problem, not Europe's.
I was thinking about these exchanges on Friday when I saw the reaction to Theresa May's uncomfortably fawning visit to Washington, where she swore Brexit Britain's loyalty to Donald Trump. As I wrote in Berlin Policy Journal this week, her supplicant posture is probably going to backfire even among Brexit supporters in the UK. May appeared "desperate and slavish" during her visit, according to the editor of Washington's Talking Points Memo. It's not a good look for someone who is supposed to be getting Britain's sovereignty and self-respect back.
In the referendum campaign, Brexit voters were told that leaving the EU would mean finally reclaiming independence – no more taking orders from ‘dictatorial’ Brussels. Now, it would be logical for those voters to question why newly-independent Britain would immediately try to find a new overlord, when they were told that the UK would be just fine on its own. Why the sudden rush to do a free trade deal with Trump at any cost?
The fact is that May surely has no choice. She has chosen a path of complete separation from Europe, a move that could result in losing more than half of UK trade. Something has to fill that vacuum. Her vision is one of a free-trading anglosphere - and that will not be possible without the United States. Brexit cannot work without Trump's cooperation. And so the UK finds itself even more beholden to the US than it was already. In other words, it is now less independent, not more so.
But why should the average British person understand this, when they were never told how dependent they were in the first place? They were told there was a "special relationship" between the UK and US, but not told that this relationship is a one-way street in which the US bases its military on British soil but not vice-versa. They were led to believe that Americans think as much about them as they do about Americans. And they were told that they are, and will continue to be, a global power.
The British education system completely ignores the European Union, even though it is a union that post-colonial Britain has come to rely upon not only for its economic growth but also its law-making. The British education system and media ignored the true nature of NATO, an American-run military protectorate over Europe. Indeed, the elites of Britain wilfully mislead their citizens into thinking they were more self-sufficient, militarily and economically, than they actually were. It would hurt national pride to tell them how things really are.
Britain is by no means alone in fostering feel-good myths of national self-sufficiently. This is a Europe-wide phenomenon.
Across the continent, politicians did not level with their people about how untenable their situation was. While in continental Europe they are more aware than in the UK of their place in the world as small-to-medium-sized states, British people are largely unaware the degree to which their states are militarily dependent on the US.
Politicians did not want to acknowledge this fact because it would run counter to national pride. So they chose to ignore it, to even wilfully mislead people into thinking their countries were more independent and self-sufficient than they actually are. After the UK, this has been most notably true in the very, very proud French Republic. The steady diet of patriotic lies the French public has been subjected to over the past 60 years could fill a book.
Meanwhile, the politicians knew better. They knew that the American protectorate over Europe wouldn't last forever. And so they pushed forward with the European project - the steady unification of European nation-states that greatly accelerated after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. If the nation-states of Europe couldn't be self-sufficient because of their limited size and resources, at least Europe as a political entity could be.
But all the while, they didn't bring their citizens along for the ride. They didn't walk them through what they were doing, and why they were doing it. They kept it quiet, not including lessons about the new federal structure in their education systems, and not having a dialogue with the public about what the alternative was to European integration.
Most importantly, the public was not told that they were living under an American military protectorate that was a legacy of the Cold War, and that this was invariably going to come to an end.
Caught off guard
Those politicians could never have imagined, however, that this American umbrella would snap shut so suddenly and so drastically. Nor could they imagine that the umbrella would then start pommeling them, trying to drive them apart.
Now, European leaders are sounding the alarm bells. Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign affairs chief, is trying to rush through a long-blocked (by the UK) proposal to pool European military resources in case NATO collapses. Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council, will today take the astounding step of telling the 27 EU heads of government that America now represents a fundamental threat to Europe alongside Russia, China and radical Islam. Gianni Pitella, the leader of the Europe's centre-left parties in the European Parliament, went further this week when he said that Donald Trump is "using the UK to destroy the EU".
The problem, however, is that these cries of alarm are not finding salience with the European public. The public largely does not understand what all the hair-on-fire panic is about. After all, Trump isn't their president, he's America's president. That's their problem. So many Europeans have no idea how much harm the American president can do to them, simply by opting not to protect them.
Nor do they fully understand the critical importance of keeping the European Union together at this dangerous time. Because they were never explained the realities of Europe's precarious situation in the 21st century, many of them cannot recognise the threat.
This is a major problem, because in the coming months voters in three of these countries will go to the polls and, whether they know it or not, decide the fate of the European Union.
Europe's last hope
Worryingly, the most pivotal election is happening in the country where patriotic lies of self-sufficiency have been strongest: France.
Should the French people elect the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in May, it's all over. There will be no European Union, or at least no union in any recognisable form. This would leave Europe not only in economic chaos, but also vulnerable to attack from Russia and - who knows - maybe even the United States.
But to make the connection between the survival of the EU and the safety and well-being of Europe, Europeans would need to understand the purpose behind the EU. And nobody has ever explained that to them.
Politicians have not spoken to their citizens like adults, telling them that alone, these countries cannot hope to be relevant or even safe in the 21st century.
Now is the time. Now is the time to swallow nationalist pride and explain to people what is really at stake here. In France, independent candidate Emmanuel Macron is the only candidate doing that. He is now chasing at Le Pen's heels, coming in second to her in the latest national polls for first-round voting.
He may represent the last best hope for Europe, but only if Europeans are willing to listen to what he has to say. He needs to speak tough truths to them they haven't heard before. It may be that the global emergency presented by Trump's election will finally make Europeans understand the alternative to European unity.
Perhaps this was a lesson that never could have been explained; it had to be felt. But if the voters of France don't learn this lesson in the next three months, there are dark days ahead for the European continent.