Philip G. Cerny


The debate over the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has seemingly been decisively answered following December’s general election. The decisive win by Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party now means that the U.K., will by operation of law, leave the European Union on January 31st, 2020.


The election effectively ends a historic three-year period that saw a minority government and opposition political parties debate trade, economic growth, regulation and immigration, all in the context of Brexit.


However, what the debate in parliament missed out on was the much larger context of Britain’s historical role in Europe— specifically, her paradoxical desire to be both inside and out at the same time. Britain, in a way since the fall of the Roman Empire, has always wanted to keep her distance from Europe while also seeking to prevent unwanted political outcomes on the Continent from impacting on Britain, what I call “Britain’s in-out relationship.”


As Dean Acheson, previously Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, said in 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not found a role.”  Britain’s search for a post-imperial role is a legacy of her deeply rooted scepticism towards Europe. Britain has been both a crucial player within Europe and yet a self-defined outsider at the same time. At times this tension has served British interests well, but in the 21st Century the complex ramifications of globalisation are opening up both old and new wounds.


This game originally involved playing off continental feudal dominions and post-medieval European nation-states—France, Austria, Prussia, Holland, Spain—against each other in order to enforce a balance of power on the Continent, especially in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The aim was to protect British interests not only within Europe but in the British Empire too, in competition with the French and nascent German Empires.


That policy failed dramatically in the early-to-mid-20th Century as two World Wars broke out, bankrupting Britain and forcing it from 1949 onwards to relinquish its colonies and imperial interests. After the Second World War, while Britain forged its “special relationship” with the United States, it distanced itself from political changes on the Continent. Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured this worldview, famously telling General Charles de Gaulle on the eve of the Normandy landings in June 1944: “This is something you ought to know: each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.”


At the same time, however, the idea of European integration emerged and developed as the goal of continental policymakers and publics. This led to significant political and economic departures from the past, especially the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s and its successor, the European Economic Community.


Nevertheless, British politicians refused to participate in the negotiations and preferred a simple free trade area without political strings, rejecting the idea of an “ever closer union”, in favour of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA).


Although Britain eventually joined the EEC in 1973, these reservations remained powerful. The call for a referendum for rejecting EEC membership in 1975 came from across the political spectrum, although it failed in the end. But Margaret Thatcher’s demand in 1985 for a budget “rebate”; British rejection of an integrated monetary system in 1992 and, later, the euro; and Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt at renegotiation prior to the 2016 referendum were simply parts of a long term process in which British policymakers have attempted to have the benefits of an increasingly neoliberalized European Union without the perceived political downsides, by demanding opt-outs of their choice.


But none of the alternatives today will cure Britain’s Europe in-out relationship. For example, many “Brexit” supporters today—though not the more extreme supporters of “no deal”—favour British participation in EFTA, like Norway and Switzerland, or a “soft Brexit” with a continuing customs union and close links with the single market.


This could give the United Kingdom the perceived benefits of European tariff-free trade without some of the other policy encumbrances and political institutions—although there are significant regulatory and other EU strings attached to such solutions. In particular, Britain would not have direct influence in setting EU policies and regulations.


Even supporters of the “Remain” campaign in the referendum debate have stressed the concessions made not only in pre-referendum negotiations and more recent backroom discussions on such issues as immigration, but also on the British opt-out from the euro, as reasons to stay in the EU in order to benefit from the considerable economic advantages of free trade. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn voiced support for continuing customs union membership, but, while stressing the trade advantages, would ideally prefer the EU to revive the 1980s’ ideal of a “social Europe”—unlikely given the embeddedness of neoliberal policies and practices in a wide range of issue-areas. British membership is always conditional but all the alternatives have their downsides too.


In other words, the complex Brexit conflicts both within the UK and with the EU are merely the latest stage of longstanding and deep-rooted divergences between Britain and its continental neighbours.


Will British interest in the benefits of free trade and other advantages outweigh the perceived erosion of British “sovereignty”? Indeed, is British sovereignty actually increased indirectly by its membership in such a powerful international player as the EU? What further concessions will be demanded? After Brexit in January, will the result be a strengthening of Britain’s overall international role—or a version of “Little England”?


The relationship between Britain and the EU post-2020 will therefore remain an intensely contentious issue in the future, whatever the outcome of debates and negotiations next year. Differences may even grow as globalisation and the so-called “fragmentation of the global governance architecture” make today’s world politics more complex as well as interdependent at many levels.


Brexit has reopened the deep wounds of Britain’s Europe in-out relationship and these underlying tensions “between Europe and the open sea” will run and run, through the transition period, into the debates over the future relationship and far beyond the premiership of Boris Johnson. It remains to be seen however whether Britain will truly, ever be able to have its cake and eat it on the question of Europe.


Philip G. Cerny is a Professor Emeritus of Politics and Global Affairs at the University of Manchester and Rutgers University-Newark. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.