Britain without the EU: A damp and dismal future

15 January 2013
Jolyon Howorth (Visiting Profesor of Public Policy, Harvard University)

"The current psycho-drama about the UK and Europe is usually seen as reflecting a problem in the relationship between the two entities. It is not. It reflects a problem in the UK's relationship with itself. It is now sixty years since Dean Acheson noted that Britain had 'lost an Empire and failed to find a role'. Among the major players of World War Two, Britain alone seems stuck in a time warp, unable to resist looking back to its 'finest hour', and therefore unable to move on and accept the world – and the UK – for what it is.

Many Europeans have issues with this or that aspect of European integration. Only in Britain does a majority seem deeply uncomfortable with the whole enterprise. After forty years of applying the integration brakes and trying to persuade themselves that the European Union is something different from the complex and multi-faceted reality it has become for the overwhelming majority of its citizens, the British appear to have had enough. In 1973, the reasoning was: 'if you can't beat them, join them'. In 2013 it has become: 'if you can't change them, leave them'.

But where does that leave the UK? In November 1944, General de Gaulle, in newly-liberated Paris, suggested to Churchill that, objectively, in the grand frame of history and geography, the UK and France were in an identical situation. They should therefore, he urged, join forces to lead a Europe which, mustering the combined resources of its peoples and nation states, could become a player in the new world of superpowers. Churchill replied that the UK would never choose Europe as long as it could look across the Atlantic for an alternative sense of identity. That may be a view still current in Britain. It has never had any traction in the US.

The 'special relationship' is an expression one still hears constantly – in London. But when uttered in Washington, DC it can refer to one of several dozen relationships. From the Marshall Plan onwards, every US administration has encouraged the UK to throw in its lot with Europe. Britain as a trading partner has been valued primarily for its access to European markets. (This is equally true of the emerging powers' view of the UK.) For ordinary Americans perhaps, Britain offers nostalgic reflexes based on language, culture and history.  But it is absolutely a European country. Whatever a succession of UK prime ministers may have imagined, something akin to honorary 51st state status has never been on offer.

Once outside the EU, the UK's clout in Washington will plummet. Why would the US continue to prioritise a relationship with London which offers little advantage compared to Berlin, Paris or even Brussels? Even the fabled UK contribution to US military operations is set to wane in the wake of defence reviews. It was, after all, at American bidding that Tony Blair agreed to set up the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) with Jacques Chirac in 1998. For the US, Britain's major contribution on the security front has been in stimulating the Europeans to step up their game.

After 'Brexit', the UK would no doubt attempt to experiment with various revived plans for an alternative free-trade area. But EFTA was a total failure which cannot be resurrected, and the EEA is a strange arrangement whereby countries like Norway are bound by EU regulations over which they have no political control. Britain as a 'large Switzerland'? It lacks the mountains and the chocolate. The 'Commonwealth option' is a lost cause at a time when Canada is nudging ever closer to the US, when Australia is emerging as an Asian power in its own right, when India is constructing its own identity as a rising power, and when Africa is finally beginning to throw off the shackles of neo-colonialism.

There is currently a chorus of elite opinion across the EU warning the UK 'not to do it'. It would, a growing consensus says, be either bad for Britain or bad for Europe – or bad for both.

On the contrary, I argue that, at least in the medium to long-term, it would be good for both. It would allow the EU, unhampered by the brake-man on the caboose, to move steadily forward towards a functioning, increasingly federal-looking, entity. It would force the EU to become serious about organising its own security and defence policy. And, because the UK would insist on it, it would allow Europeans to continue to trade with the UK as in the past. 

But it would also be salutary for the UK. It would force Britons to engage in a long-delayed period of historical self-examination. The middle of the North Sea is a damp, dismal and lonely place – especially if nobody cares. Unloved by anybody other than nostalgics for BBC costume drama and medieval castles, the UK and its citizens (probably minus Scotland) would be forced to decide on the only two identities available: independence… or Europe. Since the independentists have no political programme – other than Brexit – it is clear which way the tide would eventually begin to turn.

In 2053, after forty years of damp and increasingly dismal isolation in the North Sea, the English, and whichever bits of the UK still remained, could apply, either separately or collectively, for membership of the booming European Federation, accept the entire acquis communautaire, and, like born-again neophytes, become the most enthusiastic members of the club."

Jolyon Howorth is a British scholar of European politics and military policy. He is currently Jean Monnet Professor of European Politics at the University of Bath and a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He is an EPC academic fellow.