For most of the twentieth century, right up until the UK joined the Common Market, Fleet Street took Europe seriously. There wasn’t a national newspaper that didn’t have staff in Paris and Bonn. Many also had representatives in Rome and Madrid, while even in the lesser capitals there were stringers – freelance reporters on retainer – to fill in the gaps.

The irony of Britain’s years as a member of the EU was that as the focus on “Europe” (i.e. the EU) increased, so our newspapers’ interest in the nations that made up the Continent gradually slipped away. It was enough for most of them to protest that Germany and France were ganging up on us in Brussels and that we couldn’t rely on the others to come to our aid.

Most editors and their top executives no longer cared much who the French President was, or the German Chancellor, still less the prime minister of Spain or Poland. They were all the same. They were Them and We were Us. It was enough to know that we subsidised the lot of them and (as the country’s new foreign secretary once warned us) that they wanted to force our British sausage meat into unacceptable shapes.

Brexit, when it finally happens, sometime in the next three or four years, could, in theory clear the European decks, allowing us once more to see our neighbours as individual nation states and not a grim collective known as “Brussels”.

Either that or our attitudes will actually harden, so that we come to regard the Channel as a bit like the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings that separates the Shire from the rest of Middle Earth, where dwarves work metal and orks from the East are a disturbing, but distant, threat.

In the years before and after World War II, Europe (contrary to the opinion of the wretched Neville Chamberlain) was very much terra cognita. Our pre-war generation of political leaders, most of them Tories or Liberals, knew their European counterparts extremely well, not as cyphers, but as individuals. They met on a regular basis, either formally or informally, forming a political class that was not confined by borders. They were guests at each other’s house parties. Half the European Establishment had been to Oxford or Cambridge, while it was far from uncommon for would-be British politicians to study in Europe and spend their summers in Bavaria, Capri or Nice – not just soaking up the sun and getting pissed, but reading books and newspapers and keeping up to date with the changing scene.

(In this context, it might be said, Theresa May, hiking in Switzerland with her husband, is something of a throwback, and a good thing too.)

It was the era of the diplomatic correspondent, in which privileged hacks – invariably well-born, often bi- or tri-lingual – lunched with ambassadors and foreign ministers and reported back, unabashed, to the intelligence services as much as to their editors. Resident correspondents from The Times, Telegraph, News Chronicle and Express lived in lavish apartments, dividing their time between grand salons and sleazy bars, picking up gossip high and low.

After the Second World War, one effect of which was to familiarise millions of ordinary Britons with the reality of Europe’s linguistic and cultural mosaic, we felt even more invested. Our soldiers had fought and died there. Our airman had reduced whole cities to rubble. We didn’t want to go through that again (again) and, while doubting its practical utility, followed Churchill’s lead when he espoused a United States of Europe, with the UK as both sponsor and patron, if not actual participant.

Leaders like De Gaulle and Adenauer were familiar figures, as was Italy’s Alcide De Gasperi – probably the only leader of his country to end his career with less money than when he began. But there were others, too, whose names were common currency in political circles: Tito, Robert Schuman, Jean Monet, Maurice Couve de Murville, Willi Brandt, Sicco Mansholt, Paul-Henri Spaak, Altiero Spinelli. Ludwig Erhard, Andre Malraux. In the West, only Spain and Portugal, cut off from the mainstream by their vestigial fascism, remained anonymous, while the whole of Eastern Europe, less the Balkans, was necessarily – and tragically – cut off, lost to view amid the gray mist of Communism.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the offices of British newspapers in Paris were large, lavish and smack-bang in the centre of town. Some had uniformed servants. Invitations to lunch with ministers and top officials, or to embassy parties and book launches festooned the fireplaces, in which coal fires burned in winter. Today, the correspondent files from his bedroom and watches news conferences on TV. If he, or she, wants an interview with a leading member of the Government, he lifts it from Le Monde.

There are honourable exceptions, of course – Charles Bremner of The Times, the recently-departed Matthew Campbell of the Sunday Times, Kim Willsher of The Observer. But each of these is Old School, from a vintage now approaching retirement. Their commissioning editors, meanwhile, tend to be more interested in François Hollande’s love life than his strategy on Brexit. The icing on the cake has become the cake.

Perhaps the truth is that Europe was more of a family 50 years ago than it is now? We may not always have been close. There was hate as well as love. But we understood each other and where we were coming from, and after 1945 the belief was that, with so much work to be done, we were all in it together. Reporting this reality was European journalism’s core business.

Without committed journalism – without an awareness of how the different national systems work – how can we be expected to know what is going on in the Continent which both Mrs May and Boris Johnson insist we are not leaving? When I think of how Europe is (for the most part) reported today, I shudder. We need to be sold more than scare stories about migration, asylum seekers, terrorism and the rise of the Far-Right, important though these are. We need to know what makes our fellow Europeans get up in the morning, what books they’re reading, why some of them work harder than us and what, if anything, binds them together other than the euro.

Today, Europe, outside of Brussels, is perceived as a combination of car factory and holiday resort. Our young people go there for city breaks, drunken weekends and hen parties. The rest of us take our selfie-sticks to the Louvre, the Prado and the Uffizi or else pollute the beaches, tanning our wobbly bellies and drinking too much beer. Europe to most Brits means football, not politics. We literally don’t speak their language – though they speak ours. We neither know nor care who is in power in Paris, or Berlin, or Warsaw. The names of their ministers mean no more to us than the identity of whoever may or may not represent us in the European Parliament.

Maybe – just maybe – this will start to change as the shapes and characteristics of Europe’s nations become once again distinguishable from the vague outline of the European Union. And maybe editors of national newspapers will become once more familiar with what Sir Peregrine Worsthorne once famously described as the chancelleries of Europe. But I’m not holding my breath.

Brits overwhelmingly love America., which is why there are at least five times as many UK hacks in Washington, New York and Los Angeles as there are in the whole of Europe. The global reach and glamour of the U.S. is one obvious reason for this this. Language, though, is almost equally important. Only a minority of Americans are of British or part-British origin, but, until the exponential growth of the latino population in recent decades, nearly all of them spoke English. It will be interesting to see how the “special relationship” develops when 50 per cent or more of Americans speak Spanish as their first language and there is a Mexican in the White House, but until then we continue to delude ourselves that they love us just as we love them.

In Europe, by contrast, where English has become the near-universal second language, we too often feel alien as soon as our feet hit the tarmac. Their newspapers are a closed book; their television and cinema a meaningless babble; their talk among themselves in bars and restaurants an exotic conspiracy to exclude us from their confidences.

Some newspapers take this view almost as an article of faith. For them, Europeans are either funny, irrelevant or … boring.

And so a thousand years and more of England’s involvement in Europe has come down to this: they can keep their stupid European Union; they can stick their freedom of movement where the sun don’t shine; and, yeah, even if sterling does collapse, it’s good for our exports. So sucks-boo to you. It’s bonsoir old thing, cheerio, chin chin. Nah-poo, toodle-oo, good-bye-ee!

I fear our future newspaper coverage of Europe will reflect this lack of curiosity. Already there will be talk of “slimming down” Brussels coverage – i.e getting rid of most staff correspondents. Paris and Berlin bureaux may survive, but on a shoestring. Only when war threatens, which one day assuredly it will, will we suddenly wake up. Then the foreign correspondents will gear up again and the dip. corrs will be dispatched to enquire, in English, what in blazes is going on. Our duty to save Europe from itself will be run up the flagpole to the sound of Elgar and all the talk in London will be of France’s sadly deficient masse de manouevre.

It will be as if we had never left. The decades will simply slip away.

I almost feel better already.