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Can the British pro-European cause be salvaged?

Image credit: Nicolas Raymond

Image credit: Nicolas Raymond

Pro-Europeans in the United Kingdom (UK) have had a miserable time of late. They seem completely unable to articulate a clear, decisive and engaging message to attack their anti-European and Eurosceptic opponents in an unrelenting discursive and political struggle to define the UK’s place in the European Union (EU). Indeed, while the British still remain inside the EU, anti-Europeans and Eurosceptics have prevailed by successfully defining the EU in opposition to UK interests, to such an extent that public opinion teeters on a knife edge over the upcoming British referendum on whether or not Britain should remain part of the EU. In turn, the Conservative government faces the prospect of watching on helplessly as the British people vote to withdraw from the European project, with unforeseen strategic, political and economic consequences, both for the UK and the EU alike.

British pro-Europeans have deployed two key arguments in their quest to shore up support for the European project. The first of their arguments is well-established. Pro-Europeans readily assert the illusion – common on the European mainland – that the EU has played the leading role in establishing peace in Europe since 1945, ending centuries of conflict and war. While difficult for many mainland Europeans, as well as pro-Europeans, to grasp, most Britons simply do not share this perspective. Instead, the British look to their victory in the Second World War, which led to both the displacement of Germany and the containment of Russia as geopolitical forces with the means to disrupt the European geopolitical order. This was achieved not through European integration, but through the systematic destruction and reconstruction of Prussia’s Germany using British and American (and Russian) military might along with – later – the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which prevented German resurgence, while simultaneously stymying Russian interference and encroachment.

This is not to say that the EU has played no part in the establishment of a durable European peace, but it is to say that its role is far more supplemental than often asserted by pro-Europeans. Indeed, insofar as European integration holds any responsibility for the European peace, it only does so because it has opened-up the hitherto closed economies of the various mainland European countries and boosted their economic yield, harmonised their socio-legal systems, while simultaneously building up their political cohesion, thus making them less susceptible to domestic instability or outside – i.e. Russian – infiltration. This contributes to the UK-US backed geopolitical order, by providing mainland European countries with greater means to contribute to NATO, while also preventing political forces that are hostile to Western ideals from getting off the ground.

Pro-Europeans’ second key argument has grown particularly loud in recent years, having resurfaced due to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. This argument is a rehashing of the UK declinist narrative of the 1960s and 1970s. Its reincarnation – which might be described as ‘neo-declinism’ – rotates around the notion that British power is in retreat and that the EU is the only option for a seemingly ‘middling’ European power. There is of course some merit in this argument: economically, the British experienced a major systemic recession between 2007-2013, the worst since 1929. The British economy shrank by almost twenty percent, and only recovered in 2014 after half a decade of volatility. Militarily, the country has slashed billions off the defence budget, shrank the size of the Armed Forces (both in people and equipment) and failed with its allies to sufficiently punish both the Syrian and Russian regimes for their respective transgressions.

Politically and diplomatically, the forecast has looked little better. For many, the British have become isolated in the EU, with a new German ascendancy undermining British arguments in relation to enlargement, energy liberalisation and the euro. Consequently, the UK has come to be depicted as an ‘awkward European’, a nation too stubborn and unwilling to toe the line and accept its destiny as a European country, part of a larger integrationist project. Indeed, some have even questioned whether Berlin will soon replace London as NATO’s leading European military power, even though Germany’s military weakness – represented by its frequent calls for a European army – and political inability to use force overseas remain as debilitating as ever. And the Scottish referendum on Scotland’s potential secession from the UK has seemingly placed even Britain’s existence in doubt, after three centuries of success and expansion.

It goes without saying that the UK did indeed look to be in bad shape, especially at the turn of the last decade, hemorrhaging power from left, right and centre. Yet, from a geopolitical perspective, it is easy to see why these predictions now look increasingly hollow. As many analysts have become mesmerised by the neo-declinist discourse relating to the role of the UK in the wider world, they have failed – miserably – to see the systemic and long-term trends beneath the babble of everyday politics. These trends look set to work very much in the UK’s favour, not only in a European context, but also in a global one. Of course, the days of a world-spanning British empire are over, but – contrary to the fantasies of the neo-declinists – the UK is likely to remain one of the world’s most capable and resourceful countries well into the twenty-first century.

Economically, the UK will likely remain one of the largest economies in the world, even by the 2050s. Indeed, by the mid-2030s, it may displace both Japan and Germany to become the world’s fourth largest economy and the largest economy in the EU, trailing France, Italy and Spain well in its wake. Financially, London’s position as the world’s economic capital has been sustained over the past five years, even in the face of suffocating recession. Sitting between Chicago and New York in North America and Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai in East Asia, the City – as the financial hub of the EU – has geographic advantage and international reach that no other European city can even begin to match. Further, demographic indicators suggest that the UK is going to become the most populous and one of the youngest countries in the EU. A relatively high birth rate and high inward migration mean the country’s population will mushroom to become the largest in Europe by 2050, giving an surge to the British economic output.

Politically and culturally, the mechanisms of the British State are still robust and are sustained by a powerful historical myth – British (civic) nationalism – which, based on the ideals of liberalism, social justice, constitutional government and multi-party democracy, has the potential to continue mobilising millions of people, not only within the British Isles, but also worldwide. Indeed, to say nothing of British popular culture, insofar as modernity and British history are largely coterminous, the UK is unique in its ability to project a powerful cultural message to draw in people from around the world, reinforcing both the EU’s and the West’s respective positions.

Moreover, militarily, while the British Armed Forces have taken some very hard knocks over the past five years, they retain a level of professionalism and global reach that is only exceeded – albeit greatly – by the US. And given that the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review aims to provision the country with two new maritime strike groups – based on the Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers and Lightning II combat aircraft – without equal outside the US Navy, as well as an expeditionary force of 50,000 troops, the UK will retain the strategic capacity to generate a potent strike force. If politically calibrated, this force may be able to act as a powerful deterrent and compellent, not only in relation to threats in Eastern Europe, but also the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. This means that the British Armed Forces will retain a unique place in relation to the US, as well as other major Western military powers, such as France, Japan, India and Australia, rendering the UK central to a lattice of military networks.

If these projections become reality – and there is convincing evidence to suggest they will – the arguments put forward by both anti-Europeans and Eurosceptics, as well as pro-Europeans, become as foolish as they are stupid. Withdrawal from the EU would weaken Britain, just as staying inside an unreformed EU would tie the UK down. If Britain were to leave the EU, it would mean that the UK would lose its influence in Brussels, which would likely lead to a failure on the part of the rest of the EU to reform. Equally, it would also lead to a new form of German hegemony, which would likely mean a more enclosed and anti-strategic EU and an EU less critical of Russian belligerence. Likewise, in the event of the pro-European arguments prevailing, a similar EU looks likely: while German power may be diluted by Britain’s growing strength, the EU will nevertheless resemble the EU of today, rather than a more dynamic, liberalised, strategic and Atlanticist EU of tomorrow.

It is therefore in other European countries’ interests to ensure they remain sufficiently flexible to keep the UK inside the EU. A UK outside the EU will not only lead to dangerous imbalances within the European structure, but may also lead London to calculate that European integration is undesirable and should be gradually undone. The UK is unlikely to remain silent as decisions are taken on the European mainland that negatively affect British interests. History has shown again and again that Britain can be a determined opponent, which – due to geopolitical factors, its political organisation and its financial strength – is extremely difficult to defeat. The UK has other European forums through which to pursue its European agenda, such as NATO, the British-French Alliance, the Joint Expeditionary Force, the Northern Group and other bilateral relationships, and those could readily be empowered to dilute the EU’s cohesion. And given that British power is likely to continue to grow over the coming decades – relative to the other European countries – London will acquire the means to develop a far more assertive, even aggressive, European strategy.

Challenging the prevailing orthodoxy and preventing these negative European futures will be difficult. The UK clearly has – and will have – the means to steer European integration in a new and more popular direction. What Britain therefore needs is a potent new vision that will see the country playing a role in the EU commensurate with its economic, political, cultural and military weight (especially in the coming decades). Therefore, if pro-Europeans wish to see a strong and globalised EU, they should instead focus on the long-term structural enablers of British power and harness them to reform and undergird the common European project. Indeed, instead of remaining an ‘awkward European’, the UK could well be positioned as the lynchpin of the entire integrationist project, which means the EU would maintain a close and irrevocable link with NATO and other parts of the West, to ensure the European geopolitical order remains resolutely in keeping with liberalism, social justice, constitutional government and multi-party democracy.

So, until pro-Europeans in the UK articulate a more forceful and pro-British message in relation to the EU, their arguments will continue to stagnate. Rather than banging the same old drums, British pro-EU groups need a moment of intellectual reflection to rework their message and provide a new moral and intellectual framework that will not only convince Britons of the benefits of European integration, but will also bring non-British Europeans on board, to show how a greatly reformed EU could work to everyone’s benefit. Are British pro-Europeans fit for the task?