Hereditas Historiae

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The Sunday Times (section News Review) - 21 February 2016   

Stuck in the middle with EU

Perched on the edge of Europe, Britain has for centuries had to juggle its interests next door with those across the globe. In charting how we have pulled it off, Ian Morris argues that Brexit would be a disaster

By Ian Morris


'When I was a teenager in the 1970s, nothing in the world seemed quite as dull as the European Community, with its dreary procession of Brussels bureaucrats telling me what I was allowed to eat and drink and in what size containers it would come. But I, along with millions of my fellow countrymen, was wrong. Europe was not tedious at all: it was the most radical political experiment the world had seen.

For 5,000 years, since the first states were created in what is now southern Iraq, rulers had been using violence to control people and then using politics (and when necessary more violence) to create economic and cultural unity among their subjects.

From 3000BC to the late 1940s, it is hard to find a single example of a state being built in any other way. Since the late 1940s, however, western Europeans have turned history’s most successful formula on its head.

The reason the European Union (as the European Community rebranded itself in 1993) seemed so tiresome was that tedium was its whole point. In committee meeting after committee meeting, unsung bureaucratic heroes spun a web of rules and regulations that bound the continent’s once-warring states into an economic and cultural unit, and then began using economics and culture to create a political unit, and all without shooting anyone.

“The final goal,” Helmut Schlesinger, then head of the German Bundesbank, explained in 1994, “is a political one . . . to reach any type of political unification in Europe, a federation of states, an association of states or even a stronger form of union.” In this agenda “the economic union is [merely] an important vehicle to reach this target”.

For the first time in history, huge numbers of people — 500m so far — have come together to form a bigger society without anyone using force to make them do so. The consequences have been extraordinary. Between 1914 and 1945 Europeans were at the heart of two world wars in which more than 70m people were killed, but in 2016 the EU is one of the safest places on earth.

Europe has some of the lowest murder rates in the world, its governments have abolished the death penalty and it has renounced war within its borders (and largely beyond them too). Small wonder the Nobel committee awarded its 2012 peace prize to the European Union as a whole.

In a key speech on Britain and Europe delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, David Cameron recognised this. “You [can] never forget,” he said, ‘that this is a group of countries that used to fight each other and kill each other, and have actually now come together in a common endeavour.”

Even so, he added, “if Europe is about ever-deepening political union, with ever-deepening political institutions, then it’s not the organisation for us”.

What this means, he explained in Hamburg recently, “is clear: I want to keep Britain inside a reformed European Union . . . And I never want us to pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the world.”

He might have made his point more strongly still by adding that the hard facts of geography mean pulling up the drawbridge never has been, and never will be, an option. Since about 6000BC, when melting glaciers finally raised sea levels high enough to create the English Channel, two fundamental facts have dominated British history. The first is that the islands are at the edge of the European landmass; the second is that they project into the north Atlantic Ocean.

Insularity never equalled isolation. Archaeology and DNA show that people, goods and ideas were already moving freely everywhere, from Spain to Scotland, by 5000BC. Southern England was still tightly linked to northern France by ethnicity, economics and culture when Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55BC. However, Britain was very much the edge of the known world in antiquity, and remained so until the 15th century.

The English Channel and North Sea were narrow enough to act as trading highways, but the Atlantic was simply too big for ancient and medieval ships to master. Its vastness formed a barrier cutting the islands off from the real centres of civilisation, stretching in a band from the Mediterranean to China.

For millennia, Britain was a satellite subordinated to the western end of this band. In the last few centuries BC, northern France heavily influenced southern England; in the first few centuries AD, Rome directly ruled all of England and Wales; in the mid and late first millennium AD, Germans and Scandinavians settled and plundered much of Britain; and in 1066, England was invaded from both Norway and France. In the early second millennium, English monarchs (of partly French descent) pushed back, until, for a few decades after 1422, Henry VI nominally ruled France as well as England. By 1475, though, Edward IV had formally renounced all claims on France in return for a cash gift.

What ended England’s subordination was the invention of ships that could cross the oceans. By the 1490s, Spanish galleons had reached the Americas and rounded Africa to enter the Indian Ocean. These ships converted the Atlantic from a barrier around western Europe to a highway linking it to lands of untold wealth, although at first this only seemed to make Britain’s strategic situation even worse. Spain and Portugal, which had excellent access to the Atlantic and strongly centralised monarchies, were better placed than anyone else to exploit these highways.

The English, along with the French and Dutch, were shut out from the rich pickings in India, South America and the Caribbean, reduced to colonising those bits of North America that the Spaniards did not want. If anything, Britain looked more vulnerable than ever to domination from the Continent in the 16th century, culminating in the attempted invasion by Spain in 1588.

In reality, though, the new Atlantic economy that ocean-going ships created was already transforming Britain’s strategic situation. The north Atlantic became a “Goldilocks ocean”: big enough that very different kinds of societies and ecological zones flourished around its shores, yet small enough that European ships could move quite easily around it, trading at a profit at every point.

In this brave new world, England and Holland’s relatively weak governments became advantageous, because they were less able to expropriate the profits of traders than were the powerful Spanish monarchs. In the 16th century, Spanish kings treated the New World and their merchants as a kind of cash machine to fund wars to dominate western Europe. By 1600 they were overextended and bankrupt.

English kings, by contrast, struggled to plunder either their North American colonists or their traders. Generations of struggles with parliament ended in 1688 with a compromise — the Glorious Revolution — installing a Dutch king on the throne and setting up business-friendly institutions.

Holland, which did not even have kings, went even further towards establishing such institutions, and the three great wars the English and Dutch fought between the 1650s and 1670s had everything to do with intercontinental trade and nothing to do with European empires.

Britain’s insularity continued to dominate its strategies, but the fact it stuck out into the north Atlantic was coming to be more important than the fact it was near Europe. Grasping this, a handful of 18th-century Britons carried through one of the most profound strategic reorientations in history. Rather than seeing themselves as the western end of Europe, and using overseas trade to fund wars to improve their position on the continent, they began seeing themselves primarily as the hub of an intercontinental trade network. From this perspective, the only attraction of fighting in Europe was to prevent any single power from dominating the continent, because such a dominant land power could then challenge Britain at sea.

By 1815, Britain had managed to establish not only a balance of power in Europe but also an overseas empire on which the sun never set. It had become the first truly global power in history. Unlike any earlier empire, though, it got most of its wealth not from plunder or tax but from its dominance in global trade, and used its military and economic muscle to protect free trade and open markets.

The story of how Britain’s 19th-century system broke down is well known. Free trade allowed some of the nation’s commercial partners — above all, America and Germany — to industrialise their own economies. On the one hand, their growing wealth allowed them to buy more British goods, raising revenues even further; on the other, it turned them into Britain’s rivals in international markets, rich enough to challenge the nation militarily.

After about 1870, Britain’s financial and military lead over these rivals steadily shrank, and with it the country’s ability to police the international order and deter other great powers from trying to unite Europe. In 1914, Germany’s leaders decided their own strategic position was so scary they had to risk war with the “globocop”, with European mastery as the prize.

Britain and its allies defeated this challenge, but only at a ruinous cost, and a second German challenge — much more explicitly aimed at continental mastery — could be overcome only through Soviet and American might.

In 1962, the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson famously said: “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.”

But that was not entirely true. Lord Palmerston had been nearer the mark in 1848 when, as foreign secretary, he said: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual friends . . . [only] our interests are eternal and perpetual.”

For more than 400 years, Britain’s strategy had been to engage vigorously in global trade while preventing the rise of a single dominant power on the Continent. In the 17th century that required all-out naval conflicts with the Dutch. In the 18th it required all-out naval conflicts with France, plus colonial expeditions and occasional continental land wars (sometimes on a grand scale, as against the American rebels and Napoleon).

In the 19th century it mostly meant policing the world’s sea lanes, fighting constant small wars against non-Europeans and trying to conduct Europe’s “concert of powers”. Between 1914 and 1945 it meant total air, sea and land wars with Germany, and increasing reliance on America. And from 1945 into the 2010s it meant even deeper economic and military dependence on America, combined with a delicate diplomatic dance with what we now call the European Union.

British leaders constantly had to recalibrate the balance between their American and European interests. In the 1950s and 1960s, they leant too far away from Europe and were shut out of the Franco-German alliance that headed the European Economic Community. In the 1970s, they leant too far the other way, entering the European Community on disadvantageous terms in 1973. Since the 1980s they have leant away from Europe again, renegotiating their financial contributions in 1984-5, opting out of the euro in 1992, joining the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and committing 10 years later to an in-out referendum on the EU by 2017.

Some observers seem to think the EU crisis that began in 2010 means Britain’s long-term strategy is finally working and that a Brexit will finish the job. On this view, just as Britain stopped Napoleon and Hitler from uniting the continent through violence, it is now stopping Brussels from doing the same thing through rules and regulations.

As a result, this argument goes, the limits of the EU have been cruelly exposed. Old-style empires could have used force to solve a problem such as the euro crisis, as Britain did when it sent gunboats to extract compensation from Greece in 1850. In the new Europe, however, no German tanks will be rolling through the streets of Athens to restore fiscal discipline.

Six years on, the EU’s much-maligned policy of masterly inactivity — doing just enough to keep indebted countries afloat, but no more — has so far averted disaster. In 2011, the Swiss bank UBS worried that the inability of Brussels to back up its rules with force might end up unleashing violence. “Almost no modern fiat currency monetary unions have broken up without some form of authoritarian or military government, or civil war,” its analysts observed.

Yet despite eye-watering unemployment, rowdy street protests and recurring political crises, Greece has hung on in the eurozone; and despite mounting pressure on Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and even France, none has yet collapsed.

Since 2014, however, a new challenge has hit the European path towards state formation. Nearly 2m refugees have flooded into Europe from the south and east. The borderless Schengen area is struggling to cope. Amid scenes of misery and occasional violence, internal borders are returning. The ever-deepening political union has gone into reverse.

But the lesson of history is surely that none of this is to Britain’s advantage. The best outcome for Britain is not, and has never been, a shattered Europe. Rather, it is (and has always been) a continent with which Britain can do business. This means a continent that is organised, prosperous and peaceful without being so centralised that it can close off Britain’s options — above all, the option to engage on its own terms with the rest of the globe.

Pulling up either of Britain’s drawbridges — the one across the English Channel linking it to Europe or the one across the Atlantic linking it to the wider world — would be equally disastrous.

Britain’s geostrategic juggling act has never been easy, and will not become so any time soon. Behind the bureaucratic tedium that fooled me so badly back in the 1970s, an intense twilight struggle has always been going on.

Some politicians would have us believe we can cut through all the messiness simply by voting “no” on Europe, but that ignores the lessons of geography and history. The inconvenient truth is that, in the untidy real world, staying in a reformed European Union and keeping the juggling act going is the closest thing to victory that is available.'

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

Ian Morris is Jean and Rebecca Willard professor of classics at Stanford University, California (department of Classics). He is the author of Why the West Rules — For Now.

Further information about the - British - author is to be found on the website of Stanford University.