After Brexit, Britain is still seeking a post-empire role

SHARE After Brexit, Britain is still seeking a post-empire role

Vehicles line up at the border of the British Colony of Gibraltar in La Linea de la Concepcion on April 7. Gibraltar accused Spain of causing traffic jams with tightened border controls. Gibraltar has emerged as a sore point in Britain’s exit negotiations with the European Union. | AFP PHOTO / JORGE GUERRERO /

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The English Channel at Dover is barely 20 miles wide but, after millennia of history and nearly 50 years in the European Union, the British still can’t find their way across it.

This, more than furor over immigrants or other issues, explains Brexit, the British vote to leave the EU, which it joined in 1969 but never really accepted. It also explains why fears that Brexit will lead to the unravelling of the EU may be more scary than realistic.


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Britain is an off-shore island and never felt itself part of Europe. Brits traveling from London to Paris say they are “going to Europe.” A famous London newspaper headline cried: “Fog Over Channel! Europe Isolated!” Many Englishmen opposed the tunnel beneath the Channel for fear it would be a conduit for mad dogs and garlic fumes from the Continent.

These frivolous facts hide the reality that Britain, through its history, saw itself as more of a world power, the master of a global empire, involved in Europe but never really European. It won two world wars in the last century without being invaded. Indeed, it was the only European combatant in World War II, winner or loser, that was never occupied.

But it emerged from that war virtually broke, stripped of empire, robbed of world influence, clinging to a “special relationship” with its old colony in America. Dean Acheson, a former U.S. secretary of state, proclaimed in 1962 that “Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” Its role as a “separate power…is about played out,” he said. So was the “special relationship” that Acheson carefully put in quotation marks.

That stung. But a year later, Britain swallowed its pride and applied for membership in the European Common Market, as the EU was then. French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed that bid, and another in 1967, because of Britain’s “deep-seated hostility” to European unity.

Eventually, Britain joined the EU in 1969, after de Gaulle retired. But the old dicta hold true: Britain still had not embraced a role, and the “deep-seated hostility” remained. It never became a comfortable member of the European club, balking at measures for deeper unity, while its tabloid press produced a stream of lies and bile about the EU and its institutions.

For this, Margaret Thatcher bears much of the blame. As prime minister, she railed against Brussels. Since then, her nationalistic and free-market beliefs curdled into the xenophobic Little Englandism that produced Brexit.

Brexit has been blamed mostly on British antipathy to immigration. But other EU nations struggle with immigration and, so far, none have followed Britain out the door. France might, if its National Front wins power, but it’s not certain. France was a founding member and, unlike Britain, feels a European vocation. Hungary and Greece might go and wouldn’t be missed, but the EU core seems unlikely to unravel.

Britain now has begun two years of negotiations to leave the EU. It wants special trading relations and other concessions. The Continentals, thoroughly fed up, may or may not agree.

But three things are certain. That “deep-seated hostility” persists. Britain remains an off-shore island. And it still hasn’t found a role.

Richard C. Longworth is Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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