Back Home

The United Kingdom and Europe: should it come or go?

Despite Scotland’s vote to stay in the United Kingdom (UK), London can often appear unsure of itself and in retreat. Nowhere does this appear more true than in Europe and especially the European Union (EU), where the UK’s relationship is best captured by words such as ‘vetoes’, ‘spoiler’, ‘wrecker’, ‘blackmailer’, ‘isolated’, ‘gambling with is future’, or, to quote the current British Foreign Secretary, ‘lighting a fire under the EU’. This is not simply the result of the current government. The UK was ‘an awkward partner’ in EU politics long before David Cameron came to power. Given how long-running the UK-EU saga is, some in the rest of the EU might welcome the prospect of a British exit – a ‘Brexit’ – taking it as a sign of the country’s retreat, decline and disappearance.

The awkward reality for supporters of such a view is that this would mean the EU loses the country that, by the middle of the century, could be – in every key area – the most powerful in Europe. The UK’s rise in Europe poses challenges for the EU, especially for Germany, currently the EU’s largest and leading economic power. It will raise questions for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) through which Britain will remain Europe’s strategic leader. And London will need to think more carefully about what its relations with NATO and the EU could mean for it and European geopolitics.

Predicting the future, especially the mid-twenty-first century, is filled with multiple uncertainties. Nevertheless, it looks plausible that in the 2040s the UK’s population could overtake that of a declining Germany. Likewise, by 2020, the UK could have overtaken France as the EU’s second largest economy, with London continuing to race ahead as Europe’s global city. While the British Armed Forces likely face further cuts, the UK is building aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines which could still be in operation beyond 2040, meaning the country will remain Europe’s leading military and strategic power.

Projected population changes within the EU in 2013 and 2060

2013 2060
Germany – 80.5 million United Kingdom – 79 million
France – 65.6 million France – 74 million
United Kingdom – 63.8 million Germany – 66 million
Italy – 59.7 million Italy – 65 million
Spain – 46.7 million Spain – 52 million
European Union – 505.7 million European Union – 517 million


Of course, population, economic weight and military capabilities are no guarantors of power, especially within the EU where the largest and smallest states are in some respects equal. Nevertheless, a large population and economy allows a country to pursue a more ambitious agenda. Given the unlikely prospect of German demographic or French economic resurgence, the UK’s relative size looks set to grow as opposed to decline. Whether this happens with the UK inside or outside the EU – or in the face of an EU that integrates or fragments – the growing British position will pose a series of questions for European politics:

What type of political ideas might the UK use its growing position to push? When looking back at Britain’s notion of European integration, the emphasis has largely been on widening it while resisting further powers for the central institutions. While the UK has led in a number of areas that have strengthened the EU’s supranational powers and global standing, the overall emphasis has been one stressing intergovernmental cooperation, especially to enhance economic gains. The UK would likely continue to resist supranational solutions, continuing long-standing tensions with institutions such as the European Commission. More recent developments such as the Eurozone – should it survive to mid-century – will develop to reflect the positions of its members and may thus exclude the UK. Nevertheless, should Germany, the key proponent of supranational European integration, be in a weaker position when pushing such an agenda, then British resistance to supranationalism could become a serious impediment.

What then might the UK seek for Europe in international affairs and European security? It should hardly be a surprise that the premier organisation for London has always been – and will likely remain – NATO. While Britain is the military and strategic leader of Europe, on many European security matters it can also appear in retreat. British commitments to the Gulf, or the US pivot to East Asia, can appeal to it more than the security of mainland Europe, which come 2019 will no longer be home to British forces following their withdrawal from Germany. However, Russia’s recent behaviour may trigger a rethink. Europe is a live geopolitical concern for the UK. A NATO and EU led by the same power could make Europe not only more stable but also a more effective security actor.

But will the UK have the ways and means to affect change in Europe should it even wish to do so? Germany has been able to draw on its economic power and the appeal of its political, social and economic models, especially in Eastern Europe. Unlike Germany, it is doubtful whether Britain would be prepared to be the EU’s paymaster, either in budget contributions; larger projects such as the Eurozone; or long-standing security commitments to Eastern Europe. The UK also lacks the central geographical place that reinforces Germany’s position as the ‘heart’ of Europe. Geography, growing economic links to markets beyond Europe that draw British attention (and others such as Germany) and a political outlook and interpretation of history that makes it weary of mainland Europeans combine to mean that the British would likely be held back by the detached view they take of themselves in Europe.

What about internal British problems? The UK itself is going through a constitutional crisis; the Scottish question is far from settled; London powers ahead of the rest of the UK; and tensions continue to simmer over immigration, identity and population change. Europe could find that its largest power turns inwards. Britain’s past behaviour will also leave other European states weary of the idea that its positions are intended to benefit Europe as opposed to itself. London has rarely appeared comfortable leading in Europe. Instead it has sought to lead Europe in the world, using the EU or NATO as a means to an end of enhancing Britain’s international standing, especially with the United States (US).

How strong will the UK be vis-á-vis the EU? Whether the EU survives to mid-century depends on a variety of factors, especially the political will of its members – and especially the unity of effort of Germany and France (with France’s population by mid-century also possibly set to level with or overtake Germany). Should this unity hold, then some form of improved EU unity seems likely, even if it is not clear what this would look like. Meanwhile, failure will likely mean an EU that remains fragmented, weak, perhaps reduced to a core Eurozone surrounding Germany and France. Whether as a more united EU (perhaps minus the UK), or as a core Eurozone, the population size, economic, political and – potentially – military power of either (at least on paper) will be far greater than that of the UK on its own. Even if the EU were to completely fragment, the UK’s size will only be marginally larger than that of France or Germany. The leadership of Europe could be as difficult mid-century as it is today.

And what does this struggle for leadership suggest in the context of what Europe – the British included – will mean in the world by 2050? By then, Europe’s share of global power will likely have declined significantly. Perhaps the EU, with a NATO to which it is closer thanks to British efforts, could be one of the poles in the emerging multipolar world. But it could also itself be divided into a multipolar Europe of Russia, Turkey, an EU or core Eurozone and – should it leave the EU – the UK. These poles could be caught up in a global struggle in which Europe is torn apart in an ‘Asian Century’.

This is all, of course, far in the future. But if we look beyond talk of the British leaving the EU in 2017-2019 a wider change in European politics can be identified that will begin to weigh on decision-makers’ minds. If the population and economic projections hold true then attention will likely soon turn to not to German hegemony but to Germany’s decline. Berlin’s current position should also remind everyone that no country is capable of leading Europe if it focuses on only niche areas. Germany has been a leader in the EU, but a junior partner in NATO. Backers of a ‘Brexit’ may be trying to throw away the UK’s chance to lead in both. Yet  Europe, whether with Germany or the UK as its largest power, is likely to continue to have restrained and reluctant leadership.

Vol. 6, No. 80 (2014)

© It is not possible to republish this article without the express permission of European Geostrategy.