It is hardly surprising that the British relationship with the rest of the European Union has become more politicised since the victory of the Conservative Party (and their Liberal Democrat supporters) in 2010. The centre-right in Britain is a far cry from the centre-right of the 1970s: it has gone through a series of mutations as Thatcherism and John Major’s ‘quiet conservatism’ have taken their toll. Likewise, with the thumping victories of Tony Blair’s New Labour project in the late 1990s and 2000s, the Conservatives were backed into an increasingly right-wing corner to maintain some semblance of relevance. This led to an ever-more and sometimes rabidly Eurosceptic party, whose younger Members of Parliament – the children of Mrs. Thatcher – came to see ‘Europe’ as a problem area that continuously demanded British attention. Such sentiment was expressed by the Iron Lady herself in 1999 at the Conservatives’ Annual Conference:
In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world.
Her words now resonate again: the troubles with the Euro and the assertive and self-interested ‘leadership’ of Germany have added further fuel to the fire. Eurosceptic right-wingers, who, only a few years ago were dismissed – even by Mr. Cameron – as a raucous band of crackpots, loonies and closet racists have become seemingly more plausible. Indeed, as British trade with the rest of the European Union has steadily declined to account for less than half of the country’s total, and as large new markets have emerged in the Indo-Pacific and South Atlantic, many Britons have come to believe that the uneasy marriage with their continental brethren has reached breaking point and the only way forward is divorce.
To be fair, those who argue in favour of further British detachment from the European Union have a ‘reasonable’ case, particularly if viewed from a short to mid-term economic perspective. The economic and demographic projections for most European countries are not only bad but bleak. Most of Central and Eastern Europe – including Poland and Germany – are set to decline substantially as a stubbornly low birth-rates and rising death rates reduce the total population. Germany, the current economic dynamo of the European economy, is losing the equivalent of two cities the size of Cambridge each year as its population ages and declines. By 2030 it will be losing a city the size of Manchester annually. Likewise, parts of Southern Europe seem mired in economic decay as unstable, ineffective and unpopular governments fail to implement reforms to make them dynamic and competitive. Although they currently also face economic difficulties, only the Northern and Western European fringes – countries like Sweden, Finland, France and the Irish Republic – still have growing populations.
The question therefore arises: why should the United Kingdom, with a generally robust long-term economic and demographic outlook, remain mired in a stagnant and declining economic area? Why should a country that will grow in power and likely remain well within the top five global powers by 2030 seek to extinguish itself by getting dragged down in a benighted European peace project that now seems to have been doomed to fail from the start? Surely the future for the British is – as it was in the past – on the high seas, as the Singapore of the Atlantic, a strategic, economic and cultural entrepôt, straddling the old Royal Route – from Southampton to Suez and then on to Shanghai – and the emerging ‘Wider North’?
Of course, it goes without saying that British governments should seek to diversify British trade and commercial relations, focusing on high growth zones in the Indo-Pacific and the South Atlantic. But this does not need to come at the expense of British relations with the rest of Europe. For no matter how hard it tries to remain aloof from continental affairs, Britain cannot build a wall of iron around the European mainland. To rephrase a former British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, ‘“Europe” will always get through’. The English Channel is not an impregnable barrier; and Britain cannot go back to ‘splendid isolation’, which, in any case, neither turned out to be particularly splendid nor isolated.
If anything, Britain’s history provides a powerful geostrategic demonstration of the interdependence between mainland Europe and the high seas. Tony Blair understood well the inseparability of Britain’s global and European personas. Only if strong in Europe will Britain be strong globally. And only if strong globally will Britain’s position and strength in Europe be secure. This is why the United Kingdom cannot withdraw from European integration. The British should see the mainland as a reservoir of wealth and power to boost their own position.
In this sense, mainland Europe’s absolute demographic decline and relative economic stagnation presents London with both a challenge and an opportunity. It presents a challenge because, much like in the past, Britain’s ability to thrive as an offshore entrepôt will to a large extent depend upon economic growth on mainland Europe. Should economic stagnation and political disintegration further dent into the European mainland’s already bleak projections, Britain’s future potential as a global power will come under threat. Consequentially, London must remain engaged to ensure that other Member States in the European Union liberalise their markets to remain competitive, while fighting back any attempts to impose financial taxes, trade barriers or sustain so-called ‘industrial champions’. Moreover, Britain must also fight Europeans’ introverted attitude towards foreign policy and condescending stance towards the use of military force, arguably one of the greatest contemporary threats to European global influence and to British power.
At one and the same time, the decline of mainland Europe will provide the British with an opportunity, simply because, by 2050, if not sooner, the United Kingdom will become Europe’s largest centre of population and its biggest and most advanced economy. This, allied with America’s progressive entrenchment eastwards, will leave Britain in an advantageous European position. If London seizes the moment, it will permit the British to strengthen their strategic, economic and political leadership across the length and breadth of the wider European continent – and perhaps even further afield. So, far from trying to isolate the country from European affairs, London should begin to plan for the future: as Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff, recently pointed out in his lecture to the Royal United Services Institute, Britain’s European allies will look to the country for security and leadership. Helping them will boost British power and lead to a more liberal Europe.
The United Kingdom is a European power. It may have global reach and expansive international interests, but London’s gaze must never be turned away from the European mainland. Indeed, to correct Mrs. Thatcher, it is only when London has kept fully focused on mainland Europe that British interests have been protected and its opponents deterred. Any attempt to eschew itself from the continent will not only prove futile – no matter how reasonable and economically sound it might seem in the current context – but will potentially damage, perhaps irreparably, London’s credibility and ability to exercise leadership within the European Union, whose wealth and resources will, in any case, be required to boost Britain’s own position in an increasingly competitive multipolar world.