Britain is part of Europe – like it or not

Its fate is inextricably bound up with that of the rest of the continent and its nation states, just as it has always been – we are condemned to sink or swim together.

So the “renegotiation” is over, and the referendum campaign begins in earnest. And what a dispiriting affair it promises to be, as “Fear” slugs it out with “Loathing”.

Prime Minister David Cameron, optimistic by temperament and necessity, will of course put the best possible gloss on the new deal, but what he will be presenting will essentially be a set of protections – from excessive regulation, from Euro group domination, from the ratchet of “ever closer union”, and above all from EU migration. The message will be one of damage limitation. The wider “In” campaign will be similarly devoid of any positive spirit, majoring on fear of the consequences of leaving – the economic damage, the break-up of the UK, the years of chaos that an acrimonious divorce would entail.

“Outs” may try to conjure the vision of a liberated Britain embracing the wider world. But their pipe-dreams of a rejuvenated Commonwealth and new trading relationships are clearly fantasy. So the motor of their campaign will be hostility to Brussels and all its impositions – erosion of British “sovereignty”, uncontrolled immigration – overlaid with a new contempt for the inability of the EU to revive its economies or find any answer to the refugee crisis.

And even the most ardent Europhile would have to admit that today’s EU is a bit of a difficult sell. Henry Porter, in a recent Vanity Fair article, offers a handy summary of the state of the Union at the start of 2016: “Europe is beset by so many crises that it can be hard to remember them all. In rough order of prominence, they are: homegrown terrorism, the largest migration of people since World War II, sovereign debt, doubts about the euro’s viability, the rise of extreme right-wing parties such as France’s National Front, Russia’s menace to its western neighbors, growing Euro-skepticism (especially in Britain, which may easily vote to leave the European Union in a forthcoming referendum), the election of hardline governments in Central and Eastern Europe, and the Catalan independence movement.” No wonder the piece is titled “Terrorism, Migrants, and Crippling Debt: is this the End of Europe?”.

Why should any sensible Briton vote to stay on board this sinking ship?

The short answer is that, whilst Britain can most certainly leave the EU, it cannot leave Europe – as 2,000 years of history have demonstrated. Our self-image is of a sturdy, independent island people – conquered once by the Normans, but otherwise defying the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and Hitler from our sea-girt fortress. But this national mythologizing passes over the successive invasions of Romans, Saxons and Danes before “the Conquest”; and ignores such episodes as a thirteenth century French Dauphin lording it over London, or the successful armed take-over of the English state by William of Orange. Tudors and Stuarts may have been home-grown monarchies; the rest, from Plantagenets to Hanoverians to today’s royal family, came from Europe. And, of course, the nation’s “finest hour”, when Britain stood alone against Nazism, followed directly from the refusal to cut a deal with Hitler, and the deliberate acceptance of a fight to the death for the future of Europe. From the Hundred Years’ War to the campaigns of Marlborough and Wellington to two World Wars, Britain has never been able to stand aside for the continent’s various turmoils.

Today, Britain’s involvement with the continent is largely framed by its membership of the European Union. A modern myth is that we were conned: we thought we were joining a free-trade area, only to discover when it was too late that the continentals had ensnared us in a political project. But the speeches made at the time give this the lie. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher herself, kicking off the Conservative campaign to keep Britain in Europe in 1975, opened by invoking the Conservatives’ long-standing “European vision”; quoted Disraeli’s warning against “perverse interpretation of our insular geographic position”; and emphasised first and foremost that “ The Community gives us peace and security in a free society”. With greater or lesser enthusiasm, our leaders in the 1960s and 70s understood that Churchill had been right on the necessity for some great project of structured cooperation amongst the nations of Europe, and accepted that since it was underway we had better be part of it.

So here we are today, with our economy intimately bound up with that of Europe and our cultural ties – largely due to the free movement policies which have given us budget airlines, the right to retire in Spain, and the opportunity to study in European universities – woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

The extent and intimacy of these links becomes apparent only when they are disrupted – as happened last summer when desperate migrants briefly laid siege to the cross-Channel terminals in Calais. Overnight, massive tail-backs of commercial vehicles developed on both sides of the crossing. Businesses all over Britain felt an immediate impact. Tens of thousands of British holiday-makers, long accustomed to an easy drive south to the sun, found themselves stranded. (With French cooperation, the crisis was soon defused – but offered a small foretaste of the infinitely greater chaos that would follow if the French withdrew their permission for British border controls to operate on their side of the crossing – a likely sequel to a Brexit, as Cameron has rightly pointed out.)

Ah, but we are told, none of this “bound in to Europe” stuff will matter in the future! The internet, and globalisation, have abolished the constraints of history and geography: tomorrow’s world will operate according to a new paradigm, in which we will be free to select our friends and economic partners ad lib from the entire global community.

Like all new paradigms (remember the one which explained why the stock market boom of the late 90s need never end, certainly not in a crash?), this vision takes a foundation of fact and builds upon it a towering edifice of fantasy. Of course, communication technologies have profoundly impacted the way the world works, from global supply chains to jihadi networks. But the idea of new or rejuvenated international networks and markets just lying around the world waiting for Britain to pick up on them is nothing more than wishful thinking.

The world’s dominant anatomy remains geography, just as its dominant political architecture remains the states which tax and conscript its populations — and whose interactions and alliances still largely determine the course of international relations. (Where states fail, as we are now witnessing, the result is chaos, and mass migration.)

Globalisation and hyper-connectivity have not changed this so much as they have provided new mediums through which states can pursue their age-old rivalries and competitions (as ECFR’s new essay collection Connectivity Wars outlines). Twenty-first century globalisation is already being balkanised by these contests; hedging against the risks of interdependence, the major powers are falling back on selective associations – “gated globalisation”. Internet universality is under challenge from “cyber sovereigntists”. The old geopolitics of spheres of influence, regional domination and alliances of convenience are reasserting themselves.

There are troubling echoes here of the early days of the last century, when Norman Angell’s hopeful new paradigm of European peace through economic interdependence collapsed into the First World War. It might seem alarmist today to invoke the spectre of  European nations again at war with each other. But in a world in which European power and influence is in sharp decline; in which state capitalism and authoritarian forms of government are challenging the assumed pre-eminence of liberal democracy; in which Europe has no easy means to insulate itself from the consequences of the conflicts now raging around its periphery – in such a world, the need for European states (Britain included) to work together on problems which none can solve by itself has never been greater.

And it hardly needs adding that, at the start of 2016, they are not making much of a fist of it. How tempting, then, to blame it all on Brussels, and present leaving the EU as the road to British salvation. But it is not Brussels which has failed to adopt the necessary shared response to the migration crisis, but the member states. It was not the EU which chose the moment of the Paris attacks to renege on commitments to take a share of the refugee burden, but a slew of capitals in Eastern Europe. It was national authorities who facilitated the latest wave of terrorism by failing to share intelligence. OK, Brussels must shoulder much of the blame for the design flaws of the euro: but it was not the EU that deregulated the banks, and racked up unsustainable levels of debt to bribe today’s voters with the next generation’s money, but a range of national governments.

Europe is in a bad way – faced with a sea of troubles, and unable to summon the solidarity and leadership to confront them successfully. But to blame it all on the EU is a misdiagnosis; and the proposed remedy of leaving the EU would only make matters worse. For though Britain can leave the EU, its fate is inextricably bound up with that of the rest of the continent and its nation states, just as it has always been. We are condemned to sink or swim together.

In the wake of the Paris atrocities, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls reflected that “We have forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic”. In other words, shit happens. It was probably inevitable that the dominant British reaction to the refugee crisis – a reaction that has lent wings to the Out campaign – would be “this really shouldn’t be happening; and it certainly shouldn’t be any of our problem”.

But it is Britain’s problem, and it is happening; and when it comes to the host of other problems confronting today’s Europe, it is no answer to seek some fantasy refuge outside the EU. There is no Black Tower in Brussels, scheming the subversion of our ancient liberties. “Europe” remains at bottom a collection of nation states, currently blaming each other for the problems which have overwhelmed them, and woefully short of leadership. The proper, indeed, the only sensible role for Britain is to stay and supply it. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.