Britain is an island nation in every sense: geographically, culturally, and politically. As an island nation, Britain is protected by the English Channel, but these 22 miles of sea do not render it invulnerable. The Channel presents a major obstacle to equal-or-stronger continental powers, giving a major advantage to Britain with no serious invasions since 1066. While this defence has clearly worked, it is vulnerable to a continent united against England. In this scenario, the combined resources could overwhelm this advantage leaving the island vulnerable. To prevent this, British foreign policy has been much the same for the past few hundred years — support the second most powerful states in Europe to prevent the most powerful from taking over entirely, thus keeping Britain safe and free to pursue other endeavours. Examples of this include participation in the anti-Napoleon coalitions, the Great Game against Russia in the 1800s, and against Germany in WWI and WWII.
By the end of WWII, Europe had destroyed itself, desperate to end the conflict that had always plagued the continent. Multiple liberal institutions were created to encourage European integration and unity which would coalesce over time into today’s European Union. With firm US encouragement, seeing it as a fantastic opportunity to prevent infighting and present a united front to the new Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, no one power would be able to dominate Europe again. The US presence mitigated any such attempts and nations were now able to outvote any single state’s abusive actions — the system working as intended.
Britain integrated with its allies in West Germany, France, and the USA by joining the EU, seemingly consistent with the old approach; they would be able to work within the apparatus of the EU to prevent any one power from dominating Europe. However, unlike before, Britain was now held accountable as the other states’ votes outnumbered its own. This situation had never presented itself before — Britain’s allies had always been weaker than Britain. Unused to the indignity of having to listen to their allies, many voters would express their rage at this in the 2016 referendum where Britain voted to leave the Union, divorcing themselves of the horrors of cooperating with the neighbours.
Britain is now faced with two major obstacles. Firstly, it is unable to directly prevent continental domination. The EU has been designed to prevent other large powers from interfering in its affairs, a leftover from the Soviet collapse where the EU was gaining new Eastern European members. Chinese and American influence have also been partly excised by these institutional structures which soon the UK will have to deal with — they are unable to access the necessary levels of diplomacy to pit European states against each other without EU access. Secondly, by leaving, Britain is now facing its worst nightmare: a continent dominated by one single bloc. For the first time in centuries, Britain’s policymakers must try to figure out how to approach such a beast without declaring war as was historically done. There are no second-best allies to call upon as continental Europe is almost wholly united through the EU. Some Brexiteers have realised this and espouse that Brexit is to be the first of many, the EU is doomed to collapse, and it could happen any moment now. This seems rather like former Soviet policy which predicted a massive string of communist uprisings to take place across Europe at any moment — I suspect this approach by the Brexiteers will end the same way.
Of course, there are reasons why Britain’s approach to foreign policy has failed regarding the EU. Unlike the imperialist nations of the past it was designed to deal with, the EU comes from many states with an explicitly anti-imperialist goal in mind, so these forms of great-power politics don’t quite work in the same manner. Simply put, different kinds of foes require different strategies. Most Europeans are not ecstatic to see the UK leave the EU; some are pleased to say good riddance, a mere 13% according to one Ipsos poll, with 58% believing Brexit to be bad for the EU. This leads to the final reason – Brexit as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the EU in a close-knit deal relies upon both the desire from continental voters for nationalism in their own countries but also a desire for the UK remaining to outweigh their desire for continental unity. This has not happened.
Solutions for this dilemma are possible but none are particularly optimistic. In a world where you’re not a great power unless you’re in a bloc, the UK could pursue alternative blocs. Europe doesn’t seem to be forthcoming as the EU has essentially taken all ideal candidates — the grand alliance of the UK, Switzerland, Serbia, and Norway does not strike fear into the hearts of anyone. Non-European blocs have been proposed by many Brexiteers, especially with the Commonwealth states, but this seems unlikely due to the lack of cost-effectiveness (one Westminster report said trade deals with Commonwealth states would make up about 2% of the lost trade with the EU) and the distrust of Britain left from the colonial subjugation of these now independent states. There is the option of re-joining the EU or suspending leaving indefinitely. This option seems to have little political will in Westminster even if it is still a popular option amongst many (especially young) voters and thus seems unlikely. Regardless, some solution must be found soon, or the UK will find itself an increasingly irrelevant and marginalised state hidden away in the corner of the map of Europe, inward looking and alone. In such a status, it is unlikely the UK will survive in its current form, if at all.
Iain Clownes – Politics Writer