If Brussels and the Brexiteers are to be believed, the United Kingdom (UK) will have no interest in, or at least no influence over, the political management of the rest of her continent after Brexit. For the former this is a punishment, for the latter a release. A glance at the history books, however, shows that this is a very unsafe proposition. Britain’s security has depended on Europe for hundreds of years. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, English and later British grand strategists drew ever wider circles outwards from the English Channel until their purview embraced the entire continent. Not even the Royal Navy, they knew, could make Britain completely safe, because a mainland hegemon would be able to outbuild them at sea if not diverted on land. “Europe”, as Winston Churchill, a man steeped in the colonial and maritime traditions of this country, admitted “is where the weather comes from.”
It is therefore not surprising that the history of British grand strategy is one of continuous engagement in Europe. Almost every generation has seen a large-scale presence on the continent from the armies of Henry V and Henry VIII in France, through Leicester’s expedition to the Netherlands, the Wars of Grand Alliance against Louis XIV, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the two world wars, the Cold War, and the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. Today, British forces are deployed to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic states, Romania and, soon, Iceland.
For this reason, almost every past European settlement has also been a British settlement, from the Treaty of Utrecht by which London helped to defend the ‘balance of power’, the Vienna Settlement, the Treaty of Versailles, the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, and of course the European treaties since 1973, in which Britain was intimately involved. The Europe we live in today has been fundamentally shaped by the UK.
The UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe cannot be reduced to the bundle of legal and economic issues that the negotiators have been haggling over these past two years. It is an organic connection which goes to the very heart of the entire European order.
How likely is it then that Britain will completely exclude itself, or be excluded, from the joint running of the continent after the country has left the structures of the European Union (EU)? The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alone is not a sufficient vehicle for the defence of British interests on the continent, or indeed for the defence of Europe as a whole. First, because it only involves the UK in the military security of the continent, and not in the economic and political order which it is defending. Secondly and relatedly, because a continued British military guarantee for Europe in the context of a UK exclusion from Europe would be likely to produce a British ‘Trumpism’. Why should we protect the Europeans, Britons will ask, if they are determined to keep us at arm’s length?
The ailing Withdrawal Agreement, which Theresa May, the Prime Minister, has consistently failed to get through the Houses of Parliament, suggests that this is exactly the fate Brussels has had in store for London. It is constructed in such a way that the UK will find it difficult to extricate itself from a customs agreement with the EU, over whose rules it will no longer have any say, except at the price of leaving Northern Ireland behind. Even if the UK re-establishes sovereignty over its own territory, Brussels and the member states have signalled that it will have no role in mainland Europe beyond protecting them for free. Regardless of what one voted in 2016, this outcome would not be in keeping with Britain’s place in the world today, or how it sees itself. It is incompatible with the history of the country, so far.
There has got to be another way. The UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe cannot be reduced to the bundle of legal and economic issues that the negotiators have been haggling over these past two years. It is an organic connection which goes to the very heart of the entire European order. Britain will not simply steal out of the EU like a thief in the night. Its departure will change not only the UK, but the entire EU. The rump EU will have to find the political unity that the UK has enjoyed since 1707. A completely new, bespoke framework will have to be established which enables Britain to reassert her sovereignty outside the EU, while at the same time supporting the continued political integration of a space whose stability has always been central to British security.
So the task for any historically-aware British policymaker should be to re-conceive the UK-EU relationship outside the existing ‘third-country’ frameworks which have lead us down the dead-end that is the Withdrawal Agreement. British negotiators could start by putting away those folders and opening some history books.