The challenges facing the United Kingdom over the next two years are numerous and increasing by the day: how to negotiate with the European Union, how to manage trade access after leaving the single market and customs union, how to deal with the rights of EU residents in Britain, how to sort out the Irish border, how to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom and how to deal with an increasingly belligerent US president with a dwindling interest in the defence of Europe. This list is far from exhaustive.
All of these issues are hugely important and they are closely interconnected. At root, however, they are a question of order, not so much of the “rules-based” global international community, significant though that is, but of the European order around which the world system was originally constructed and that remains – for the UK, at least – the primary pivot.
To most eurozoners and many British Remainers, the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU, the principal political ordering mechanism of our continent, was a tragic act of self-indulgence based on a risible overestimation of the country’s current significance and bargaining power. In this narrative, particular emphasis is placed on the role of England and the English, who are quixotically defying the march of history.
The Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole summed up this sentiment when he wrote, “The English are no longer dominant and powerful. They are a mid-sized, fairly average western European nation.” O’Toole dismissed as “hilarious” the Prime Minister’s threats that if Europe “does not play nice, she and Boris will destroy its economic artillery with their flashing sabres”. On this basis, he characterised Brexit as “imperial England’s last stand”, in the tradition of British “heroic failure”, from the Charge of the Light Brigade and Isandlwana to the Somme and Dunkirk.
In the same spirit, the distinguished Cambridge Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle recently located Brexit in “a specifically English psychosis, the narcissistic outcome of a specifically English crisis of identity”. The first phase of this process, he argued, lay in the unions with Scotland and Ireland when the “English gave up their Englishness in order to become British”.
The second phase, Boyle suggested, has been the past fifty years or so, when the English “lost even that surrogate for identity and have been wandering ever since through the imperial debris that litters their homeland, unable to say who they are”. This explains, he continued, “the trauma of lost exceptionalism”, the English refusal to “become just another nation like everybody else . . . neither specially honourable nor specially dishonourable, with limited weight, limited resources, and limited importance in the world”, and to learn “to live in the world on an equal footing with other people”.
Instead, the English cling to “Britain” as a “figment . . . to disguise their oppressive, indeed colonial, relation to the other nations inhabiting Great Britain and Ireland”, a “self-deceptive device by the English to deny the Scots and the Irish a will of their own”. For this reason, Boyle concluded, the English resist not so much “the goal of a ‘superstate’”, which exists only in their “fearful imagination”, but the “idea of collaborating with equals”. The English Brexiteers, in short, are the “lager louts of Europe” who have engaged in “an act of geopolitical vandalism”.
These sentiments are echoed in continental Europe, sometimes equally trenchantly, sometimes in a more measured fashion. There, the emphasis is on the “rules” of the European “club”, whose members co-operate on the basis of equality and will not accept any “cherry-picking”, such as Britain’s attempts to maintain access to the single market without paying the “dues”, including the unrestricted free movement of people that Brexit was designed to prevent.
This theme was reprised in January by Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, who now holds the rotating EU presidency and as such will be closely involved in the Brexit negotiations. He compared the EU to a “sports club”, from which the UK, as a former member, might expect some small favours after Brexit but no more. “You can aspire, maybe, to park your car in their parking lot if there is a free space,” he explained. “You can aspire to get into the gym at some times” – but that would be it.
On these readings, Britain’s future will be grim. It will be “adrift and irrelevant”, as some would have it, helplessly exposed to the chill winds of economic globalisation and friendless abroad. Even the integrity of the UK is in doubt, as the Scots and the Northern Irish move to assert their right to independence within Europe after Brexit.
Often, this is anticipated with satisfaction, as the just deserts for English vandalism. In Germany and much of the rest of Europe, such “Gott strafe England” thinking was much in evidence immediately after the referendum. Sometimes, it is contemplated with fear and regret – for example, in the New Statesman, which argued in a Leader in January: “A new constitutional settlement and the creation of a fully federal state are necessary if the UK is to survive.”
All of these analyses contain important truths and insights. Brexit has reopened the Scottish Question, for, though the 2014 referendum on independence was held after the intention to hold a vote on EU membership was announced, most of the people casting their ballots did so in the assumption that Britain would remain in the bloc.
The SNP First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is thus perfectly entitled to demand that the issue is revisited. It is equally correct that Brexit will mix the cards in Northern Ireland in ways that are deeply unhelpful to the peace process there, which rests partly on the involvement of the EU, and which would be damaged by any restrictions on free travel across the border.
Finally, it is right to warn of the economic effects that we will experience once Brexit is finally carried out. These are currently far less dire than “project fear” warned, but the present economic “phoney war” will surely end once Britain leaves the single market, with serious short-to-medium-term consequences for the City, manufacturing and other areas of the economy. Because the EU is a political project – just as Brexit is – we should not assume, as the prominent Brexiteer Daniel Hannan did recently, that Brussels or the national capitals will follow a purely economic logic.
Unfortunately, these analyses also rest on a flawed understanding of the European order and Britain’s place in it, which makes them unreliable guides to what lies ahead. In order to understand why this is so, we first have to remind ourselves of the historical and political foundations of the system that we inhabit.
The continental order is largely a product of British and latterly Anglo-American attempts to create a balance of power that would prevent the emergence of a hostile hegemon (first Spain, then France and then Germany), while being at the same time robust enough to ward off external predators (first the Turks, then Russia and then the Soviet Union). The resulting “goldilocks” problem, in which the continentals were
either too strong or too weak, has been one of the central axes of European history in the past half-millennium.
After the Second World War, the Americans, some visionary continentals and even some Britons (such as Winston Churchill) realised that the only way to cook porridge at exactly the right temperature was to establish a full democratic political union, with or without the UK. Such a United States of Europe could look after itself without endangering its neighbours and both embed and mobilise Germany for the common good. For various reasons, most of them to do with the incompetence and divisions of the continental Europeans, full union was never achieved; and while it remains the only answer to the European Question, its realisation seems further away today than ever.
The UK played and plays a unique role in the system. It is not in any meaningful sense “equal” to the other states of the “club” that it is leaving. Over the past three centuries – from the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, through the 18th-century European balance of power, the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, the Versailles Treaty of 1919, to the 1945 settlement and beyond – Britain has been central to the European order, far more than any other power. This remains true today, because the EU depends entirely on Nato, of which Britain is the dominant European member, for its security.
Though France likes to think of itself as a military superpower and boasts that it will be the only EU state with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council after Brexit, the reality is that it is a far inferior power in the European system. Its sovereignty was restored, perhaps unwisely, by the Anglo-Americans in 1944-45, and is now strongly qualified by how France controls neither its own currency nor its own borders, and while it could theoretically restore its sovereignty, this cannot be done without simultaneously establishing that of Germany, which is the one thing that French participation in the European enterprise was designed to prevent.
The EU may be a club and it can make whatever rules it likes, but it should never forget that the Anglo-Americans own the freehold of the property on which the club is built. Brussels and the continental capitals are at best leaseholders, and in many cases just tenants of this order. Put another way, the UK is not just another European “space” to be ordered, but one of the principal ordering powers of the continent.
In the same way, relations between the four nations of the United Kingdom have been largely determined by considerations of European order. Wales and Ireland were reduced so as to secure their resources and deny the enemy a “back door” to England. England combined with Scotland in 1707 for much the same reasons. With conquest and union came representation. Some of the oldest constituencies in the British parliament are Welsh; the Scots sent MPs to Westminster, as did the Irish after the Acts of Union in 1800, including Catholics eventually.
This arrangement had its faults, but it kept the lid on tensions within the nations (even in Ireland, where Union was designed as the answer to the fratricide of the 17th century and the 1790s) and between the nations. It also enabled the smaller peoples to be represented at the heart of government and to enjoy access to the empire and the global economic connections mediated by England, where “independence” meant both dominance by England, in any case, and exposure to foreign subversion and the English fear of it.
Geopolitically, therefore, English or British sovereignty is meaningful in a way that that of the Irish Republic is not, and that of an independent Scotland or Wales would not be. Politically, to be sure, the outcome of Brexit will put considerable pressure on the relations between the nations of the UK but, in the long term, as the intermediary role of the EU recedes, the bonds may well strengthen.
The nations of the United Kingdom, and especially England, thus already have their Union, which has survived the test of time – unlike the continental Europeans, who are either too big to be allowed to have national sovereignty (the Germans) or too weak for it to be meaningful (almost everybody else, probably including France). The English have a “goldilocks” constitutional and geopolitical body shape: small enough to be distinct and large enough to be viable. They therefore see no need to submerge their sovereignty in a still larger union. To them, the unrestricted free movement of people, which – if managed properly – elevates continental Europeans and knocks the edges off their more malign nationalisms, is unnecessary and potentially subversive of their own identity, regardless of what economic advantages it might bring.
Many Europeans and the more pessimistic Remainers believe that the post-imperial United Kingdom is too weak to survive outside of the EU and will probably fragment as a result of Brexit. This is almost certainly untrue. The power of the UK ultimately rests on the strength of England, enhanced by the support of the Scots, the Welsh and the (Northern) Irish.
England was a major power in Europe long before the overseas empire, and the UK remains one in military, economic and cultural terms today. The UK’s economy is more than twice the size of Russia’s, for example and, unlike Germany or Japan, it possesses nuclear weaponry and (notwithstanding some technical issues) the capacity to deliver them. In a Europe menaced by Vladimir Putin, that matters, particularly to the northern and eastern Europeans on whom Donald Trump has turned his back. So to call the UK or even England a “mid-sized, fairly average western European nation” seems very wide of the mark. It is a mistake that many have made over the years, invariably to their own cost.
In my view, the UK is unlikely to fragment under the shock of Brexit. The Welsh voted to leave the EU in similar proportions to the English. Scotland united with England three centuries ago partly because it was broke, partly to avoid being completely dominated by England, but mainly in order to present a common front to a menacing Europe. The Scots renewed that bond for similar reasons less than three years ago.
That calculus hasn’t substantially changed today, the principal difference being that a breach would create potential barriers to the 63 per cent of Scotland’s trade that is with the rest of the UK, as opposed to the 16 per cent that is with the EU. If Nicola Sturgeon calls another vote on the basis of staying within the single market or customs union, she will be beaten and she knows it.
Independence was only viable so long as both states were members of the EU. A vote to leave the UK would simply increase English power over Scotland and reduce the role that Scots currently play in deciding their own destinies. The economic and political might of England would shape the lives of Scots without them having even a numerically proportionate voice in those decisions, which is what the Union
Nor should it be assumed that Brexit will fracture the UK in Northern Ireland. The role of London in containing tensions there remains unchanged and, while there was a clear majority for Remain in the province, there is an equally clear, overriding desire to remain part of the UK.
What will change is the status of the border. The blame game here will be complex, but it is far from certain that all of the opprobrium will land at London’s door. Theresa May has stated that whatever the position on goods, the free movement of people in the Common Travel Area, which long predates both countries’ membership of the EU, should continue. Dublin would dearly welcome such a solution.
The problem is not London, but Brussels. EU rules state that any member with a land border with a non-member state that is not a part of the Schengen Area – and that is what the UK will be after Brexit – is obliged to have border controls. It won’t be the British but the Europeans who will be dividing Ireland (or, by analogy, forcing an independent EU-member Scotland to erect a hard border with Britain). To submit to such a demand from Brussels would be as politically impossible for the Irish Republic as it would be difficult for it to resist the economic reprisals that may result from failing to do so. Once again – the last time being during the 2008 financial crisis – Dublin is discovering that it risks becoming an object buffeted by broader European forces that it is unable to control.
The truth is that Europe will struggle to devise a punishment for the UK that will not seriously harm Ireland first; or Scotland, if it manages to get past a Spanish veto on its independence. This is understood in Dublin, which is why the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has been trying to mitigate the effects of the British departure in Brussels. This is also understood in Berlin, where the chancellor, Angela Merkel, informally refers to the Irish leader as “Mr Brexit”. Unless the EU compromises here, Dublin will refuse to comply, and if it does compromise, it is hard to see how Brussels could effectively police a tariff barrier should London go for de facto free trade with Ireland. Ireland is now Britain’s greatest friend in Europe. The result may be that whatever the feats of Irish arms in the British uniform in years past, the greatest Irish services for the UK may lie ahead.
Moreover, the crucial variable is not British power but the weakness of Europe. Even before 2016, the European order was in a serious and largely self-generated crisis, as a result of the EU’s inability to get a grip on the common defence by deterring Russia; to defend the external border against illegal mass migration or redistribute those who had been admitted; and to sort out the euro crisis once and for all. First, the EU was upended by the vote for Brexit, then it was further shattered by the election of Donald Trump in the US.
The result of all this, in geopolitical terms, will be the opposite of what the pessimists predicted for Britain. Here, the crucial factor is not Trump’s enthusiasm for Britain, which may be fickle, but his undying contempt for the EU and most of its leaders. It was reiterated most recently during Theresa May’s visit to the US and further evidenced by his exemption of dual nationals of Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia from his arbitrary and unjust immigration ban. This defied all rationality – as the threat from British-born Islamists is considerable – but gave the US president another opportunity to show disrespect to mainland Europe. The contrast with the Obama administration and, indeed, with the entire thrust of postwar US policy, which has broadly welcomed European integration and underpinned the security of the continent, could not be greater. One way or the other, as the US reduces its stake in the European order – at least for four or even eight years – that of the other and previously junior principal shareholder, namely the UK, increases. Those are the laws of geopolitics.
Here, the remarks of the Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and the history of his country illustrate the nature of the European order in times past, the problems facing it today and the contrast between the UK and most of continental Europe. The fate of Malta over the past 500 years has been determined by many: the Turks, the Spanish Habsburgs, the Russians, the French, the Russians and the Americans, but most often and for the longest time by Britain, which is still present to the east and west of the island, in Gibraltar and Cyprus.
Through no particular fault of their own, the Maltese have had relatively little to do with it all (and for Malta, read much of continental Europe). They have been largely objects and not subjects of the European system. Today, Muscat speaks not with the democratically legitimated authority of a leader of a federal Europe, but as the passing chairman of a confederation with federal aspirations. When Bill Clinton spoke, he did so as the president of a mighty union, not as a representative of little Arkansas, but who does Muscat speak for? Until mainland Europe can answer that question satisfactorily, Britain is unlikely to be quaking in its boots.
This is why a confrontation is so risky for the EU. If it tries to impose a punitive trade regime in order to compel Britain to accept the free movement of people – and thus a surrender of sovereignty – London will retaliate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister said this in no uncertain terms when they threatened to explore alternative tax regimes. This would be an asymmetrical struggle. On trade, the EU would at first have the upper hand; indeed, a trade war is just about the only thing that Brussels can wage effectively.
Unlike Greece, however, Britain cannot be forced to its knees by economic measures alone, and unlike Greece it would adapt and diversify. London would apply the considerable talents and resources of its various institutions to subverting the EU. The UK would be unable to uphold its security guarantees in Nato if those being protected were engaged in a vicious war against British livelihoods.
In the end, victory would go not to those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most – and those are the nations of the UK. British society will cohere under pressure, whereas the peoples of most European states will wobble. Whatever the rhetoric, there is no stomach for fighting Britain in Germany, in many other member states, or in eastern Europe. The EU would fragment long before the UK does, alas.
If the continentals wish to change this situation – and it would be in everybody’s ultimate interest if they did – they will need to do what the British did in 1707, which, as I have argued before in these pages, is to
establish a full political union of nations with a common parliament to sustain the common currency and the common defence. It is the one thing that they steadfastly refuse to do. In this sense, the Europeans are driving on the wrong side of the road and the continent really is cut off, isolated from the basic principles of constitutional construction by its mental fog.
The Americans, Winston Churchill remarked, always do the right thing in the end, having tried all other options first. He might have added that the continental Europeans never exhaust the other possibilities. In the EU, as it is currently configured, they have created a dysfunctional monster so bizarre that it could not have been invented by the most sadistic KGB agent in a political laboratory in the Lubyanka.
The Europeans have taken the immense economic, military and cultural powers of the continent and shrunk them, so that the whole is far less than the sum of the parts. The record shows Europe’s almost infinite capacity for the creative pursuit of political unhappiness.
The significance of all this for the present day lies in the reality that what truly matters is not the detail of how Article 50 is to be implemented, or how trade should be managed during and after Brexit, or how Europe is to be defended if the question mark over the American commitment to Nato grows, as important and often intractable those issues might be. Rather, what matters is the deeper issue of European order. Will the EU accept that the only answer to its problems is the full federal union of the eurozone and those who wish to join it, in a deep confederal association with a sovereign UK in trade and defence? Or will it insist on making an example of Britain economically, thus precipitating a confrontation in which the Europeans hold much weaker cards than they imagine?
And will the UK encourage the establishment of a stable political union on the continent that would be to its own ultimate benefit? Or will it promote the further dissolution of an already tottering EU, and thus aggravate a crisis of the European order that Britain may survive better than any other actor, but at an unacceptable economic and military price? A grand bargain between the two unions is achievable, but confrontation is possible and even likely.
In this context, it is encouraging that the government seems to be thinking of the European order and Britain’s place in it in broader terms. The problem confronting the Prime Minister today is similar to what faced her forefathers for hundreds of years. How to construct a European system that is stable enough to provide a viable trading partner and to defend itself, but not so strong or so malevolent as to become a threat to the sovereignty of the UK? How to arrange the relations between the nations of these islands for the benefit of all in the context of severe external challenges? Here, Theresa May’s speeches at Lancaster House and in Philadelphia, whatever reservations one might have on the detail, pointed in the right direction. She spoke of the “preservation of our precious Union” – that is the United Kingdom – and of her belief that it “remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”.
She pointedly repeated these words to a US Republican Party audience in Philadelphia, and she bravely nailed Donald Trump down on the defence of eastern Europe in Washington, DC. Even such a confirmed Brexiteer as Daniel Hannan has called for Britain to support the European order as a “flying buttress” from the outside. The UK is, or could be, the best friend that the EU has, if only it would see it.
London understands that the European humpty-dumpty is hanging on by its fingernails, as Trump, Vladimir Putin and the various pre-existing crises stomp along the wall. If it comes to a confrontation, Britain could push it off – if the EU does not fall or jump of its own accord first. Even if it were done in self-defence, that would be a passing and hollow triumph for Theresa May, because she knows that, like her predecessors over the ages, she will have to help put humpty-dumpty together again.
Brendan Simms is a professor of international relations and the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge, and a New Statesman contributing writer. He is the author (with Charlie Laderman) of “Donald Trump: the Making of a World-View” (Kindle ebook only, Endeavour Press)
This article appears in the 22 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit