Foreign Policy Essay

Brexit: The UK Goes Back to the Future

By Jolyon Howorth
Sunday, July 17, 2016, 10:24 AM

Editor's Note: Is the United Kingdom part of Europe? Perhaps influenced too much by my childhood Risk board, my answer has long been “yes.” But the Brexit vote calls this identity into question, and uncertainty seems the order of the day. As a guide for the perplexed, Yale’s Jolyon Howorth offers us a review of the UK’s tortured history with the European Union to explain the problems the UK faces today and where it might go in the future.

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On 11 November 1944, Winston Churchill paid a symbolic “Armistice Day” visit to Charles de Gaulle in Paris. The general suggested that, although France and the UK had had very different experiences in the war, they were nevertheless, as it neared its end, objectively in exactly the same situation: former empires and robust civilizations, yet medium powers and financially bankrupt. Why not, de Gaulle urged, join forces and jointly lead a European superpower? In their respective memoirs, the world leaders recount that Churchill agreed with de Gaulle’s analysis but noted that the UK, unlike France, had an alternative – the Atlantic connection. Britain missed the boat on that occasion and has been missing it repeatedly ever since. Brexit is just the latest manifestation of the UK’s tortuous relationship with Europe.  

In the mid-1950s, a high-level committee was established to design the European Economic Community (EEC), the original title of what eventually became the European Union. The UK sent a mid-career official, Russell Bretherton, an economist, to represent Her Majesty among the foreign ministers of the founding Six (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). Bretherton, on realizing that the discussions were intensely political and went way beyond economics and trade, is reported to have left his last meeting of the committee with the words: "Gentleman, you are trying to negotiate something that cannot be negotiated. If negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work. Au revoir."

Nevertheless, largely as a result of the foreclosing of the imperial option in the early 1960s (decolonization was in full swing), as well as at US bidding (Kennedy made it clear to the UK that the United States favored British involvement in Europe), the conservative government of Harold Macmillan applied for membership of the burgeoning EEC, also known as the Common Market, a bid that was vetoed by de Gaulle in January 1963 on the grounds that the UK was too strategically dependent on the United States and had no interest in creating a European political project. In December 1962, Macmillan signed the Nassau Agreement with President Kennedy, tying the UK to the US Polaris nuclear missile system. When Edward Heath successfully took Britain into Europe in 1973, after de Gaulle’s death, the plan was “sold” to the UK public overwhelmingly as a great market opportunity (although Heath always denied having misled the public on this issue).

Brexit is just the latest manifestation of the UK’s tortuous relationship with Europe.

The 1980s saw the launch of the project to complete the Single European Market, under which the EU became one territory without any internal borders or other regulatory obstacles to the free movement of goods and services. Margaret Thatcher briefly became an enthusiastic European. But she baulked at the idea of a single currency and at deeper political integration. At the 1991 foundational conference of the embryonic European Union in Maastricht, the UK secured an opt-out” from the single currency and later refused to join the borderless scheme known as Schengen. In other words, the UK simply never embraced the deeper political, cultural, and identity ambitions of her European partners.

The main legacies of the UK’s 43-year membership of the Union have been: active resistance to any quasi-federal ambitions, energetic pursuit of neo-liberal deregulation, faith in market forces, and enlargement to the East (advocated primarily as further market opportunities). In a very real sense, the UK succeeded in turning the EU into a force for supply-side economics and minimal political authority. Ironically, in the 2005 referendums on the embryonic Constitutional Treaty, France and the Netherlands rejected the draft in part because it was perceived as too neo-liberal, while the British (who had been promised a referendum by Tony Blair) felt that it was far too federal and protectionist. The socio-economic conditions of the British working classes, which partly fueled the Brexit cause, were generated not by the EU, but by Thatcherite (and Blairite) policies decided on in London. Now the UK, having written the rules of the game in ways that suited itself, has decided it doesn’t want to play ball anyway.

In a very real sense, the British never “got” the EU. For decades, a ferociously hostile media lampooned the EU for its alleged encroachments on the lives of ordinary Britons. No UK leader ever tried to make the case for the EU – in large part because none (with the exception of Heath) espoused it. To be sure, 48% of voters voted to “remain” (just 34% of registered electors). But for most, this was less an act of enthusiasm than an eschewal of risk. The catchphrase of the Brexiteers was “Take back control.” The truth is that London never relinquished control over any significant aspect of sovereignty: money, borders, or defense. It was UK pressure to enlarge the EU to Eastern Europe that created the migrant problem that the Brexiteers revolted against. Few people in the UK have any idea why the EU came into existence, or what it does. Europe is a place to go on nice holidays and from which to return “home” reinforced in the belief that home is best. They have never had any intention of flirting with European “identity.” Indeed for Britons, as Margaret Thatcher once noted, Europe has always been a source of problems (Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror, Philip II, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin) rather than of solutions. The inhabitants of Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” genuinely believe that Britons are different from Europeans.

Now the UK, having written the rules of the game in ways that suited itself, has decided it doesn’t want to play ball anyway.

They now face dealing with the consequences of that difference. Already, investors, markets, traders and real-estate brokers have suggested they have scant faith in the UK’s capacity to make their difference pay. President Obama made it clear in London (perhaps hyperbolically) that, if the UK voted for Brexit, it would go to the back of the queue in negotiating trade deals. Leaders of every Commonwealth nation and every EU member state begged Britain not to leave. The Warsaw summit of NATO, which should have been all about Russia, became a meeting about the consequences of Brexit. It is still unclear what a new UK government, under Prime Minister Theresa May, will seek to negotiate, but most serious analysts are agreed that whatever that might turn out to be, the eventual “deal” will objectively be worse for Britain than the status quo ante. The Brexit referendum was launched by Prime Minister Cameron for petty personal reasons and cynically and irresponsibly fueled by a handful of self-serving politicians. They had given no thought whatsoever to what happened next. Never in the field of human history has so much havoc been wreaked on so many by so few. Behind the current conservative façade of “business as usual” lies a yawning void.

The opening line of Hugo Young’s acclaimed history of the UK’s relations with Europe reads: "This is the story of fifty years in which Britain struggled to reconcile the past she could not forget with the future she could not avoid." Brexit is just another chapter in that long history. It may prove cathartic. It is not unthinkable that, after a few decades of damp isolation in the middle of the North Sea, unloved and unappreciated by the rest of the world, the UK – in the mid-21st century – will re-apply for membership of the European Union, accept all its obligations, and become the most disciplined and enthusiastic member of all.