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Britain is part of Europe: but how much a part?

Written by Robert Tombs

Brexit proves that, even in the 1970s, it was too late to alter the global orientation of our island nation.

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“Britain is a European nation,” Remainers still often say when calling for the closest possible relationship with the EU after Brexit. I often wonder what they think being European means deep down. And do our Continental neighbours agree that we are truly European?

It is hard, perhaps impossible, really to feel the subconscious characteristics that different peoples derive from geography, history and culture. I remember being struck by the recollections of a man growing up in Eastern Europe in the 1920s: ‘I spoke German at home, Polish at school, Yiddish at the dentist …’ Enriching cultural diversity; but in this case it ended in war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. For millions of Europeans, such memories are a central part of Europeanness. How different does it feel to live on an island compared with living in the midst of a continental plain with uncertain boundaries? It is hard for us to imagine having existential worries about identity or borders. But France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary – to mention only the biggest – have experienced border disputes or territorial changes even within living memory.  Millions were born with one nationality and ended up with another—sometimes more than once.  An elderly resident of Strasbourg in 1941 would have changed nationality three times.  You can fight over these things, or you can try to transcend them. So thought Europeanism’s founding fathers, who included men from borderlands wanting to end a nightmare.

Rightly or wrongly, this can never be an instinctive British preoccupation. We could never have been at the heart of this “Europe”, with its quasi-religious mission to replace old nationalisms with an ersatz Europeanism seen as benign. “We have made Europe, now we have to make Europeans”, wrote one leading EU politician a few years back. We might theoretically understand the mistrust of popular sovereignty, supposedly a cause of war, that has shaped the EU as a secretive elite power structure, thinking it is saving ordinary people from themselves. But most of us can never feel this to be the price that must be paid for peace. The 20th century taught us a different lesson: that the democratic nation is the bulwark of European civilization, not its enemy. We instinctively feel that suppressing democratic choice is the truly dangerous course.  We cannot applaud the sentiments of a former French Foreign Minister: ‘Let us not be afraid to say it: all the major decisions to move towards European integration … were the pure product of a modern form of enlightened despotism.’  The EU’s own polling organization showed before the referendum that only 6 percent of people in Britain wanted more power to be given to Brussels and only 5 percent felt more European than British—far less than in other major European states.

Like it or not, we are on the edge. “Europe” is over there, not here. Even the keenest British federalists talk about it as a different place which they wistfully dream of being part of. Semi-detachment runs through our history. We have had shifting relationships with different parts of the continent, so that it is hard even to say with which we have most affinity. Christianity came from Rome. Later we became a southern colony of pagan Scandinavia. Our language is Germanic. We went through a transformative four- century relationship with France. We had a long economic and security relationship with the Netherlands, for a time having the same ruler. For more than a century, after the Hanoverian succession, we were a power in Germany.

Britain has been both the ally and the enemy of every great Continental state, Catholic and Protestant, monarchy, democracy and dictatorship. Its monarch even has a plausible claim to be a sherif of Islam, a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. It has never been tempted or forced to ally with the hegemonic Continental power to share in the spoils of dominating Europe. If national identity was important, 20 miles of sea were certainly no less; and trans-oceanic connections provided global resources to oppose Continental threats and work to create a “balance of power”. So Britain was the only major European state that never became an ally or a willing satellite of either Napoleon or Hitler, but decided to resist them even when the struggle seemed hopeless. Finally, it never made a serious attempt to join a triumvirate with France and Germany to control the EU. Semi-detachment has been our watchword.

The lure of opportunity overseas pulled us away from Continental ambitions. Though the Glorious Revolution of 1688 began the “second hundred years war” with France, ending only at Waterloo, the struggle became increasingly global, fought not only on the plains of Flanders, but in India and America. After Waterloo, Britain refused to be part of the Holy Alliance, a Great Power scheme to run the Continent, becoming instead the patron and protector of independent states, including France, Belgium, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Britain made little effort to shape the unification of Italy during the 1850s, and watched with limited concern and negligible influence as the separate German states were turned by Otto von Bismarck into a new and powerful Empire by aggressive wars against Denmark, Austria and France. Even had Britain wished to interfere it could scarcely have done so. It was never a superpower, but always a medium-sized state, sometimes having to punch above its weight but not getting into the ring at all if it could avoid it. Bismarck joked that if the British landed their army in Germany, he would have it arrested, and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli declared that Britain “was really more an Asiatic power than a European”.

Was this a great geopolitical mistake? Many who later supported European integration thought so. But Brexit proves that it was too late to alter it. The millions who emigrated over the last two centuries in search of a better life did not cross the Channel or the North Sea to become Europeans, but went to English-speaking countries across the oceans. Today, two and a half times as many British citizens live in the “Anglosphere” as in the EU, and Britain’s main ethnic minorities are from Commonwealth countries. Even when we were striving to be “at the heart of Europe”, we were less economically integrated than any other EU member, and for 20 years our trade has been increasingly moving away from the Continent.

Opinion polling shows that our views of the EU are not very different from those of our Continental neighbours – that is, unenthusiastic or worse. The difference is that they feel that they have no choice but to remain members. Economic calculation weighs. But so do the instinctive feelings that stem from geography and history. The detached or semi-detached countries – Norway, Switzerland, ourselves and the non- Eurozone member-states – are all in different ways outsiders. Britain’s otherness – or so General de Gaulle thought when he vetoed our entry into the European Economic Community – was that we were too global: “an island, sea-going, bound up by its trade, its markets, its food supplies with the most varied and often the most distant countries”. It has taken us half a century to realise he was right, and finally to go with the grain.

This is a revised version of an essay published in the Daily Telegraph, and reproduced with kind permission https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/12/16/great‐britain‐never‐never‐will‐european‐country/

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About the author

Robert Tombs