In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted yes on a referendum to leave the European Union: the Brexit. What followed was shocked and surprised reactions across Europe; how could this ever have happened?
War and Peace
Britain has a unique location within Europe, merely because it has the luxurious position of being an island. Although that does not prevent being invaded, it does limit how easy it is to do and how often it happens. We can say that Britain has suffered three major invasions throughout history; the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Vikings.
The last of these invasions is roughly a thousand years ago. The internal struggles on the island ended by 1707 when the Act of the Union unified Scotland and England. Here we see that for the last 300 years Britain has known unity, no foreign troops entered its territory and no civil wars took place. We cannot say Britain was at peace all this time, as they were involved in plenty of wars. The key to these however, is that it was British soldiers fighting the war abroad.
The period of peace enabled Britain to experience a period of economic growth, but it also enabled something else. Britain was not the first to launch exploratory sea-faring expeditions around the world, but they were the best at conquering these newly discovered areas. Due to the British not needing a large standing army to defend itself against the constant threat of its neighbors, it was able to invest these funds into building its navy. The need for a strong navy had become apparent after the Spanish Armada set sail in 1588 to invade Britain, by strategy and luck alone the British were able to defend their island. After this moment, Britain started its quest to be the ruler of the seas and expand the power of its navy.
Due to the existence of a British Empire, the British were less reliant on Europe for trade and wealth. They started to be more and more separated from the rest of Europe, they simply did not need them to trade with. With regards to Europe, all the British seek is the status quo to remain. Only a hostile and united continent forms a threat that is to be taken serious.
The French Revolution was not desired by Britain. Revolution means instability, and the anti-monarchical ideas could spread across the channel and affect the British Royal family. Moreover, the French under Napoleon had set out to conquer the entire continent, going as far as Russia. It suited England to intervene and prevent such a powerful block forming, and so they did. After the war, in 1814, at the congress of Vienna it was decided to move Europe back to how it looked before and undo the effects of the revolution. The status quo, so important to Britain, had returned.
World War 1
Europe before World War 1 was one of empire. The British had their empire, the French, the Germans, the Austro-Hungarians, the Russians, the Ottomans… Although some claim that nationalism started the war, it appears as an odd statement when it was imperial ambitions that clashed. The British participated in a European war again. First, the Germans had started to expand their navy. The mostly landlocked German Empire wanted to claim a few left-over territories as its own colonies and expand its global maritime trade. Here, it clearly clashed with the interest of the Royal Navy, who wanted to keep a monopoly of power on the oceans.
Additionally, supporting Russia to go to war with the Germans would prevent the Russians from expanding their empire further south, into Afghanistan. The British, owning India, feared a clash with Russia if the Russians were to attempt to establish a corridor to the Indian Ocean. An obvious goal for Russia, as they would be able to build a warm-water port and increase their sphere of influence. On a side-note, it is the same reason the Soviets had good reason to invade Afghanistan in the 1980’s. The British intervened in World War 1 to preserve their own interests. After the war the League of Nations was set up as a tool to prevent war happening again, it was a tool designed to maintain the status quo.
World War 2
Once more the Germans attempted to expand their territory. They had defeated the French and were gaining ground in Russia. Once more it posed an undesired outcome to the British, a continent united under Germany would threaten their independence. After the war it was recognized that more was needed than a League of Nations, which had proven fully incompetent in preventing the war. Starting in 1951 European Communities were created, initially to draw France and West-Germany closer together in an attempt to prevent them from going to war again with one another. In 1957 these different communities were combined in the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union.
The United Kingdom did not join until 1973, the same time period in which its empire started to fall apart. Without its colonies to rely on for trade, the UK needed to look for new partners. It joined out of convenience, not out of a desire to be a part of Europe. Hence the UK never adopted the euro and regularly obstructed further European integration.
The world of 2016 is different than the world of 1973. The Cold War is over and capitalism has won. Free trade is generally believed to be the most beneficial agreement for all parties involved in order to grow their economies. Obtaining free trade agreements is therefore easier, especially with all the countries previously under the influence of communism joining the theater of world trade. Transport has become cheaper and easier as ships grew bigger, the internet has created jobs that can be done anywhere in the world, and other nations are willing to trade. Suddenly the UK is looking at a world of opportunity.
The British have all to gain by leaving the European Union, yet by staying in the EU they have everything to lose. Their independence, their sovereignty, that they were blessed with for so long by their geographical location, would disappear in a union led by a Franco-German alliance. It is fair to say that the EU, focused on the interests of Germany and France, would not serve the interests of the British people.
The divorce will not be easy, but the longer they wait, the more difficult it will become. A major reason for this is the fact that the EU is not structured to serve an outflow of member-states, its structure is built only for expansion.