NEWS that the West Coast railway line is now in the hands of Trenitalia and FirstGroup has cheered me no end. Over the years I’ve spent countless happy hours on the Italian rail network, shuttling across the country in comfort, at a reasonable price, and almost always on time. For those who don’t enjoy the autostrada, glued to the tail lights of the driver ahead or eyeballing the one behind, who breaths so hotly down your neck he might as well be in the back seat, Trenitalia is the answer.

The smell of railway engines is fresh in my mind, having just returned from a break. Starting in Austria, followed by Slovakia before heading south to Italy, this was in some ways a sentimental journey. When we booked flights, with Bojo’s exhortation in our ears, we expected we’d be out of the EU by now. The relief of still being part of the family was enormous. As was the deepening sense of sorrow at our impending separation.

When voting stations open tomorrow, the outcome will swing on either “getting Brexit done” or trying to block it. Never before has a general election been fought almost exclusively on the basis of our relationship with Europe. It is an alliance that we’ve taken for granted, in so doing completely losing sight of what this unified front means.

The Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, in his insightful book The Europeans, described the British as “imperturbable”. In the past, this tendency meant that, in the words of Tory politician Lord D’Abernon, “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late”.

These days we are anything but imperturbable – combustible seems more apt – but in one respect little has changed since Barzini’s day. He noted that whenever a Briton was asked “Are you European”, the conversation would continue, ‘European? Did you say European? Er, er’ – a long thoughtful pause in which all other continents are mentally evoked and regretfully discarded – ‘Yes, of course, I’m European.’ This admission is pronounced without pride and with resignation.”

Some of us, however, feel defined by our European label, far more so than by the adjective British. Yet, as we explored Vienna, resplendent in old wealth and glory, and learned of the desperate history of the Jewish community in this most imperial and, to judge by the waiters, most imperious of cities, it was impossible to ignore the horrors that had been unleashed here within living memory. While we in Britain were appalled at the holocaust, we are hardly stainless when it comes to anti-semitism or religious and ethnic intolerance. Racism and bigotry are growing across the continent, needing extra vigilance on every side. Yet here we are, on the brink of cutting ourselves off, heedless to the lessons of history about the need to work together to prevent conflict, eradicate persecution and maintain peace.

Travelling in middle Europe always makes me a little claustrophobic. It’s the thought of having no escape route, unless down rivers like the Danube. The invisible pressure of neighbours bearing down upon each other at every border sends a shiver up my spine. It’s like being caught up in a crowd beside people who could turn nasty at any moment.

Living cheek by jowl has in part explained the eagerness with which some countries joined the European project, recognising their vulnerability to invasion. In this respect, wandering around the centre of the continent is a reminder that Britain’s island status is a blessing and a blight. It has been a boon for our identity as independent and individual, but a curse in fostering an unwarranted sense of superiority and impregnability. For this, I fear, we are about to pay dearly.

Where Vienna is built on money and privilege, Bratislava is at the other extreme. Thirty years on from the Velvet Revolution, Slovakia is westernising fast. About an hour by train from Vienna, it is like entering another world. The picturesque old town is encircled partly by severe concrete office and housing blocks dating from the sixties, and partly by half-built fields of skyscrapers. For Slovakia, being part of the EU is key to success. The place is aspirational, welcoming, eager to set a high bar for itself, and exuding can-do spirit.

Italy, meanwhile, never changes. There are pockets of eye-watering affluence, and sprawling landscapes of grinding poverty of the sort rarely found here. For a country whose political scene changes almost as regularly as the seasons, it has become expert at maintaining an even keel despite the fecklessness of its ruling parties. The turmoil of its leadership, and the seeming ingovernability of its people, according to Barzini, is why it was keen to join Europe. The hope was that it might obey European laws where those passed by the Italian parliament were blithely ignored.

One other aspect of this deeply complex, often contradictory country is that when it was first mooted, the prospect of a united Europe offered the chance to hide its ignoble fascist past, and dilute its dangerous Communist activists. Such motives are very different from those with which Britain entered the EU, where the benefits were primarily economic and pacific. Italy’s post-war incentives now seem archaic, yet they illustrate the powerful forces that help keep a unified block in place, no matter the fundamental differences between member states.

As we travelled from the hard-scrabble, anarchist Carrara mountains, where the marble was hewn for Michelangelo’s David, to the jewel-studded heart of the old aristocracy in Tuscany, the message seemed clear. As in Italy, so in Spain, Greece, France and the like, where warring domestic interests threaten to tear the social and political fabric apart. Membership of the European Union therefore allows each nation to hold its own fractious parts together while also making binding, advantageous ties with others.

You could say the idea of Europe is as important as its practical benefits. It is an endlessly elastic fraternity, encompassing so many differing states that only one thing is held in common. The ring that binds them all is the shared desire for unity and amity, a principle bigger than all the wrinkles and scars in each individual nation’s face. As we prepare to tear ourselves away from the continent, it feels like turning our own portrait to the wall.