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10 February 2021

Why Britain matters in Europe

Our strategic alliance with the Baltic states has survived centuries of upheaval. Now the mission is to contain the Russians and keep China out.

By Charles Clarke and Brendan Simms

For centuries the United Kingdom has played different roles across Europe, as trading partner, military ally and deadly adversary. Yet nowhere has the relationship been more prolonged and pivotal than in the Baltic Sea. From the heights of medieval trade with the region to its role today as a base for Nato troops, British interests are rooted in Europe’s north-eastern periphery.  

The importance of this relationship is unlikely to wane following Britain’s departure from the European Union. The government claims the UK will henceforth pursue a destiny called “Global Britain”. But Britain’s links to the rest of Europe will not only continue to be important, they will become even more so. The EU and the UK are now each other’s most significant neighbour. Britain has a much larger economy than either Russia and Turkey, and offers a potential “soft power” challenge to the EU that Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan can only dream of.  

Most importantly, Europe, and the Baltic especially, depend on the UK for military security. So it is vital that the two great unions understand both each other and the geopolitics of the Baltic Sea and its littoral.  

The British-Baltic connection began during the early Middle Ages, when much of northern and eastern England and Scotland endured Viking raids, most of which were launched from Denmark. This is when the phrase “Danegeld” entered the English language, first as a tribute paid to buy off the attackers, then as a tax levied to fund the defence of the realm against them. In the later Middle Ages, many eastern British towns, such as Boston, King’s Lynn, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, were partners of the Hanseatic League, the dominant economic ordering system in the area, which is sometimes compared with the EU today.  

[See also: Where are we now?]

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Over the next 300 years, relations between England and Scotland (and later Great Britain) and the Baltic became more geopolitical. During the Thirty Years War in the first half of the 17th century, many looked to the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus to defend the Protestant cause in Germany. During the 18th century, the Baltic became a source of critical naval supplies such as ship masts and hemp. This trade produced its own tensions. In the 1760s, Catherine the Great of Russia wrote in the Nakaz, her Enlightenment-inspired legal manifesto, that Britain was “always exceedingly jealous of the trade carried on with her, and seldom binds herself by treaties with other states, and depends upon no other laws than her own”. This may sound familiar.  

Keeping a hostile power out of the Baltic – be it the Catholic League in the Holy Roman empire, Tsarist Russia or France under Napoleon – was central to the British national interest. This involved resisting hostile coalitions such as the first League of Armed Neutrality between 1780 and 1783, an alliance of European naval powers intended to break Britain’s maritime dominance, or the Continental System between 1806 and 1814, which was designed to exclude her from the mainland European economy.  

Throughout this period the power of states such as Sweden and Denmark, which had previously played international roles well beyond the region, began to wane. They were caught in the crossfire of the great powers – for example, when Napoleon forced the Swedes and the Danes to take his side against London in the Napoleonic Wars. Wisely, the British did not always react. When, in 1810, Napoleon pressured Sweden into declaring war on Britain, the Royal Navy commander in the region, Admiral Saumarez, ignored the challenge.  

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain retained a critical presence in the Baltic. Most of the time, it tried to keep the Russians – Tsarist or Soviet – hemmed in. In 1854, during the Crimean War, the Royal Navy attacked Russian forts off Finland. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, British forces were sent to support the new anti-Bolshevik states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – which emerged from the wreckage. In the first half of the 20th century, the British sought to keep imperial Germany and the Third Reich boxed into the Baltic. 

In the course of these operations, Britain became a leading security guarantor of the Baltic states. Estonian independence after 1918 was assisted by the shelter of Royal Navy guns. The Estonian general Johan Laidoner, the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces at the time, later reflected that, without the arrival of the British fleet in Tallinn in December 1918, “the fate of our country and our people would have been very different”.


Britain’s relationship with the Baltic has also had its problematic, even traumatic, moments. During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain attacked Denmark twice, both times with dubious legality and to devastating effect. In 1801, the Royal Navy destroyed most of the Danish fleet to prevent it from falling into French hands. Six years later, the British rammed the point home by attacking Denmark’s capital. In the Second World War, the Royal Air Force wrecked Lübeck and Rostock, two of the most beautiful German cities in the Baltic. 

There were limits to British power. When London was outraged by the partition of Poland in 1772, British satirists asked whether the navy would sail up the Vistula from Danzig (modern-day Gdansk) to Warsaw in order to bring Russia, Prussia and Austria to heel. Bismarck called Britain’s bluff in 1864 when Palmerston threatened to intervene to support Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein – the north German principality disputed between the German and Danish national movements. If the (then small) British army landed in Germany, Bismarck quipped, he would have it arrested. And having acted as midwife to the Baltic states in 1918-21, the Royal Navy was unable to prevent the Soviet Union annexing them in 1940 and again in 1944.  

After the Second World War, Britain remained engaged in the Baltic and, as part of the Nato alliance, was responsible for the defence of the German line there. The objective was to contain the Soviet Union.  

But the UK-Baltic relationship gained a new dimension when the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. Economic relations between Denmark and Britain at that time were so close that the Danes had little choice but to join on the same day. A psychological element was in play, too, because British involvement in the EEC provided a counterweight to what some otherwise regarded as a club of domineering Germans and shifty Latins. 

[See also: A kingdom of fragments]

Over the 47 years of Britain’s membership of what became the EU, her relationship with the Baltic developed along diverging axes. On the one hand, as the states of the region integrated with the rest of Europe, the proportion of their trade with Britain declined. On the other hand, the political, geopolitical and demographic connection grew. Britain was strongly committed to steady enlargement of the EU to include the states of the Baltic littoral (Eastern Germany in 1990, Finland and Sweden in 1995 and Poland and the Baltic States in 2004). These countries tended to cleave to the UK in major EU policy debates and on issues such as data protection, human rights and criminal justice.

London used these relationships to try to hedge against Franco-German dominance of the bloc. This was the background to the UK coalition government’s “Northern Future” initiative in 2011. 

Furthermore, Britain was militarily the most important of the European Nato nations providing armed deterrence in the region. These links deepened after Putin annexed the Crimea in 2014. Shortly afterwards, things became further complicated by China’s growing presence in the area. The People’s Liberation Army Navy even conducted joint exercises with Russia in the Baltic Sea in 2017. Britain’s defence contribution to the Baltic became even more significant.

Finally, immigration from the region, especially of Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, has been notable since 1945, when many refugees came to work in Britain from those countries. After their accession to the EU in 2004, the number of immigrants from these states grew substantially, and this remains the subject of political controversy. 

Then came Brexit. The 2016 referendum was difficult for most Europeans, but it was particularly traumatic for the strongly Anglophile Scandinavians and Balts. There are also worries about security and the strategic ambitions of Putin’s Russia, especially in the eastern Baltic. Is the UK still committed to deterring Russian aggression? Donald Trump’s presidency increased those concerns after he questioned the relevance of Nato’s role in the region.


The UK’s interests in the Baltic today are clear. They are to keep the Russians contained, tensions with Brussels down, EU trade links up, and any future penetration by the People’s Republic of China out. The debate over how to defend these interests formed part of the recent opening of the Baltic Geopolitics Programme at Cambridge University, launched in January this year by the president of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid and Boris Johnson’s foreign policy adviser John Bew. 

Where should the UK now draw the military line in the Baltic? In the past, it has been quite far west, in the Danish Sound, or even in the approaches to the Baltic. It would be far better, though, for Britain to maintain its commitment to defending the democratic countries around the whole Baltic Sea and so to hold the Russians as far east as possible.

This strategy, however, depends on the assumption that the Baltic remains friendly territory. The UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU will thus be critical. Britain has no interest in undermining the EU as the principal political and legal ordering system in the Baltic. At the same time, the UK must ensure the region remains an economically shared space. It must not allow the EU’s security pretensions (which, sadly, is all that they are) from disrupting Nato by duplicating and diluting capacity through additional European defence structures.

So far, London has not linked its post-Brexit relationship with the EU to the defence of Europe through Nato by trying, for example, to trade military protection for trade concessions. If tensions arise over fishing or access to the single market, it is to be hoped that Britain will see these as the consequence of Brussels initiatives rather than reflecting some deeper enmity. Even so, it may become difficult to explain to the British public why Britain is militarily defending states dedicated to her economic exclusion, or potentially blocking her access to vaccines developed by British companies with UK government support, but produced on the Continent. The question is particularly pertinent with regard to Denmark, which has taken one of the hardest lines on fishing, citing “historic rights” going back hundreds of years. 

[See also: Europe’s vaccine crisis has revealed to the UK and Ireland the true nature of the European Union]

Britain is trying to find its new place in the world at a very difficult time. The UK’s relationship to the EU is unsettled and the Covid pandemic poses immense challenges; the economy is in the deepest crisis in modern history and the international situation is in flux, with a new US president, Germany’s election (and Angela Merkel’s succession) in September this year, instability in Russia, and the need for the EU and Nato to regain the trust of domestic and international publics in their effectiveness. This may not seem like the best moment to start talking about Britain’s historical ordering role in Europe. 

Soon, though, geopolitics will reassert itself. Britain has mattered and will continue to matter in Europe, especially in the Baltic. The UK shares with the countries of the Baltic Sea region commitments to sustainability, particularly in energy, to the rule of law and human rights, to social stability and cohesion and to excluding political extremism. These common values will matter even more when the substantial increase in defence expenditure authorised by the Johnson administration in 2020 takes effect. In the meantime, the UK should start thinking systematically about its relationship to a vital part of its own continent. 

Brendan Simms is director of the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University. Charles Clarke is a Labour politician who served as home secretary from 2004 to 2006

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This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair