Other than, arguably, joining the US in the second Iraq war in 2003, the worst post-war strategic mistake made by any British government was the decision not to join what became the EU in 1958 at the start. Had it done so it would have played a leading role and would have helped shape it into an organisation with rules, aims and a culture with which it could have been much more comfortable. Rather than being seen as a foreign institution, it would have been seen as a British one it helped create, shape and govern. Ah well. All too late now. Does any of this really matter? Yes. Here’s why.
Britain has no European strategy
What’s Brexit, then? Well, whatever it is it is not a strategy. It is a reaction – to problems within the EU itself, globalisation, the faltering of the capitalist model since the financial crash, changed migratory patterns, an uncaring arrogant elite, snotty Londoners, take your pick. But what is the strategy? Why did Britain hold back in the 1950’s, rather reluctantly and sniffily sending a civil servant to Sicily to observe what the Continentals were up to?
Lots of reasons: a desire to retreat home and build Jerusalem (there is an echo in this of Labour’s wish now to concentrate on every day issues rather than Brexit), exhaustion, a mistrust of grand schemes, a political class still in thrall to Imperial and Atlanticist pretensions (another echo there, which even Trump’s evident uninterest in all matters British has done nothing to dispel).
But the overarching reason was that Britain still held onto the European strategy which had more or less served it well since the Middle Ages – ensuring no one power dominated the Continent to Britain’s detriment. With Germany defeated and divided and US forces on European soil to keep Communist Russia at bay, what need was there for Britain to give a moment’s thought to Europe?
Eventually, of course, it decided to join but nearly two decades too late, as a supplicant, from a position of humiliated economic weakness. So, having joined the new dominant European power, what did it think this meant? Was Britain now a European power? Should its focus be on this emerging new organisation? And, if so, what did this mean for Britain itself, for British domestic and foreign policy?
The history of opt outs, of being half in, half out, never really on board with the European destination, of seeing the EU as a foe to be battled with, of cultivating a relationship with the US which was “special” in the way that a besotted fan has a “special” relationship with a celebrity whose film they’ve watched 000’s of times, suggests that an answer to the question of what Britain’s European strategy should be has never been found.
In this it was beautifully mirrored by the EU itself which never properly realised that having a country such as Britain with its different history, political and legal culture and approach as a member required a step change in its approach and thinking, beyond simply shuffling up a bit to make room for a few more chairs round the table.
Why Britain didn’t want a dominant European power
To listen to some Brexiteers now you’d have thought that Britain’s sovereignty was some golden thread running through its history since Alfred the Great and that any diminution or sharing of it is an emasculation of some essential Britishness. But the reason why Britain was concerned about this was because it didn’t want any enemy interfering with its ability to trade, with its trade routes, its control of the seas, its colonies.
Sovereignty was a means to an end. Trade and commerce were what mattered above all. And they still do matter. So what happens now given that much of that trade is with Europe and much of Britain’s trade with the rest of the world is mediated through the EU?
The EU is not an enemy
The EU may – at its worst – be many infuriating things: arrogant, complacent, sometimes venal, often deaf to concerns, inflexible, insensitive, self-interested, defensive, obstructive, unimaginative, overly bureaucratic, with a tendency to overreach, sometimes undemocratic etc. But it is not an enemy. This should not need saying but it does. It is dominant in Europe, likely to remain so for the foreseeable future and, essentially (despite all its faults) friendly and benign. It is certainly in Britain’s interests that it should be so. How then should Britain interact with it?
A close relationship
Ah yes – the fabled close relationship. What Britain is now realising, very late in the day, is that if the relationship is close, Britain does what it is told by the EU and has no say in the rules it has to follow. If joining an organisation after the rules were written was humiliating and unworkable in the long run, how much more so will such an arrangement be. If it is not close, Britain will need to earn its living elsewhere.
It will end up largely doing what it is told by other countries: China, the US, Asian nations, Pacific nations, even eventually emerging African nations. It will have a bit more say in other negotiations but the days of Britain bestriding the world imposing its rules, its language, its laws, its will on other countries are long gone.
Again, this should not need saying but it does. Britain dominated global trade in centuries past because it was able to dominate, militarily if need be, anyone who stood in its way and could outcompete others. It will be much more of a supplicant now and one without a once winning card, namely, easy entry into the EU market. All of this is doable but it is not an easy cost-free option and will involve trade-offs and sacrifices (ISDS tribunal jurisdiction, anyone?) at least as hard, if not harder, than those required by EU membership.
Currently Britain’s approach to the EU might best be summed up by Sybil Fawlty’s description of her permanently enraged husband: “You never get it right, do you? You’re either crawling all over them, licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puff adder.”
Let’s assume some form of Brexit goes through on 29 March. A brilliant slogan – “Take Back Control” – will have achieved its aim – departure. What it won’t have achieved is any idea of where next nor what control Britain will be taking back and for what purpose. What is still missing is a realistic strategy for Britain’s relationship with a dominant Continental power. Departure does not render this question moot. It makes it more urgent than ever. A little late you say? I agree. Still, if not now, when?