Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Special Relationships: The EU, Brexit, and the Atlantic Community
Special Relationships: The EU, Brexit, and the Atlantic Community

Special Relationships: The EU, Brexit, and the Atlantic Community

United Kingdom EU

In any political debate the two most unwelcome participants are:

  • the outsider who parachutes in to announce which decision people need to make, the consequences of which will not affect him directly, and
  • the historian who comes in with a great sigh and a “well, actually” as he condescendingly explains, “How much more complicated it all is than you seem to think…”

In this era of budgetary austerity, I’m pleased to report that the organizers of this event opted to sign up two for the price of one, and have thus invited a historian from across the pond to act as the focus for irritation.

All joking aside, this American historian does believe that we all have an interest in the vote on Britain’s continued presence in the European Union. And, I may add, although the twists and turns of transatlantic history are complicated, the main point I want to make is actually not complicated at all.

For despite what some may say on either side of the Atlantic, Britain’s role in the EU is but a crucial part of special relationship between Britain and the USA, and has been vital to the strength and endurance of the Atlantic Community. That role should not lightly be thrown aside.

This bears repeating from the start, since one can find many conservatives in both the United States and Britain who portray Brexit as a service to the special relationship, and who dream of escaping from a socialist, pacifist Europe into some sort of Anglo-American economic and political union. The Heritage Foundation, for example, has been advocating for Brexit for some time, asserting that the EU stands in the way of better transatlantic relations. Even conservative columnists who pride themselves on their historical sense have lost that sense when it comes to the EU. George Will, for example, only mentions two founders of European integration in a recent column—Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet—both of them French, and drifts off into assertions about the French and socialist nature of the arrangement. Will claims that the EU’s goal is to “drain Europe of grandeur,” ignoring the role of another Frenchman, Charles de Gaulle, in linking European integration to grandeur, not to mention the role of such hard-nosed realists as the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in constructing a United Europe as part of a larger strategy to defend the West in the Cold War.

What these critics provide in stories of current failure of the EU they lack in appreciation of what European integration has meant for the past six decades, and what it can mean in the future.

Now, one can certainly find many counter examples of thoughtful writers who argue for maintaining the European Union. Roger Cohen of the New York Times, for example, who has in the past called the European Union “the dullest miracle on earth,” recently warned that Europe was on the verge of an “unthinkable” tragedy if Brexit led to the collapse of the European project. “Realpolitik and idealism meet in the unity of Europe,” Cohen concluded. “The unthinkable, on both sides of the Atlantic, must be resisted before it is too late.” Meanwhile, economist and columnist Robert Samuelson has called Brexit “economic insanity,” and has more recently warned that a victory for the Leave camp would result in years of uncertainty at best, long-term economic calamity at worst.

It is very hard to say exactly what would happen if the British vote to leave on 23 June. Brexiteers come from across the political spectrum, from the nationalist Right to the anti-globalist Left, and thus do not offer a unified post-Brexit plan. Most claim that Brexit will lead to a lifting of shackles on Britain, but any advantages would only come after a significant shock, if they come at all. Remainers, for their part, also extend from Right to Left, including everyone from the Tory David Cameron to the throwback socialist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the separatist leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon, and have broadly conflicting visions for the Britain and EU they would like to see emerge from this vote.

Before taking such a leap in the dark, it would be well for both the British and their friends to reconsider the ideas, events, and individual who brought us to where we are today.

The United States and Great Britain have always had ambivalent feelings about Europe, and have not always been on the same page in every detail. But Britain’s historical role as a transatlantic power is intimately bound up with its participation in Europe, just as the idea of an integrating Europe has been central to the American vision for transatlantic cooperation. A brief sketch of that history can be vital to the rest of our discussion.

It was after all Winston Churchill who in September 1946 offered his solution to the future of a continent shattered by war and genocide: “It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” Even if Churchill was more likely thinking of Europe as separate from the UK, he recognized that a more integrated Europe was desirable, and imagined that Britain would be a supporter if not a member of any such European organization.

American policy makers as well saw European cooperation as the key to postwar recovery. The Marshall Plan was built around the idea that American aid would help create a virtuous cycle of European cooperation and increased prosperity. This is not a secret, nor is it some kind of scurrilous secret CIA Plot, as some Brexiteers have recently argued, but rather the product of sober and sensible strategy, which recognized the need for European solidarity and transatlantic cooperation in the face of an emerging cold war.  

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower, who had plenty of experience with the problems of European nationalism, made clear that he believed “the uniting of Europe is a necessity for the peace and prosperity of Europeans and of the world.”

Britain was not a member of the original European organizations, from the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) to the European Defense Community (EDC), or even of the EEC in its initial decade. But the Americans counted on the British to avoid damaging these institutions, even if they did not join. Indeed, Britain played its mediating role very well in the crisis after the collapse of the EDC in August 1954. When the French abandoned their own creation and threatened the delicate negotiations on German rearmament within the West, Prime Minister Churchill and his Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden rescued the project of European defense by negotiating, with American support, German membership in NATO and even the expansion of the Brussels Pact into the Western European Union. Britain helped keep Europe together, even if the British also expressed their preference for international cooperation.

British reluctance to join the EEC did not please Washington, and the Americans watched from a distance as the British tried but failed to win the Six to their idea of a Free Trade Area as an alternative to the Common Market. Even the British, however, quickly realized that their true economic and political interest lay within and not outside of the European community. As the Americans worried that the Six under de Gaulle’s French leadership were flirting with anti-Americanism, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan found strong support from President John F. Kennedy when he decided to file an application for Britain to join the EEC. Both Washington and London realized that the best way to help shape the European future was not to construct alternatives to the EEC, but for Britain to embrace membership.

In a 4 July 1962 speech in Philadelphia, Kennedy linked the project of European integration within the Atlantic Community to the American Revolution by calling for a “Declaration of Interdependence.” Kennedy praised efforts at European integration, concluding: “We see in such a Europe a partner with whom we can deal on a basis of full equality in all the great and burdensome tasks of building and defending a community of free nations.” Although it would be “premature at this time to do more than indicate the high regard with which we view the formation of this partnership” Kennedy asserted, “The first order of business is for our European friends to go forward in forming the more perfect union which will someday make this partnership possible.”

By this point, the Americans were counting on the British to join the EEC, and Washington was as disappointed as London when de Gaulle issued the first of his two vetoes in 1963. De Gaulle claimed that Britain was not a European power, and was something of an American Trojan Horse. He wasn’t quite wrong on either count, and both the Americans and the British spent the rest of the decade lobbying the other Eurpean states (especially the West Germans) to resist Gaullist blandishments. But those disagreements took place within the existing structures of the EEC, with an aim toward increasing British participation, not simply British sabotage.

The 1970s were a decade of gloom and confusion, and there was a great deal of transatlantic malaise—Henry Kissinger’s frustrated question, “Which number do I call to speak to Europe?” was both a challenge to Europeans and an expression of American irritation at European claims of a world role they appeared unwilling to bear the burdens to play. But here again, the British, once they were in, worked to shape Europe according to their vision, and the United States continued to look for ways to make the European-American relationship work

President Reagan’ conservative friendship with Margaret Thatcher marked the 1980s, and led to a more nuanced connection between the Anglo-Americans and Europe. As Sir Michael Howard and others have noted, the Reagan administration may have been more “ritualistic” in its support for Europe, and was certainly interested in avoiding a “fortress Europe,” the Americans preferred to work with the British to modify European policy—not to destroy the project. It’s also worth noting that Reagan’s most intense dispute with Europe—over the building of the soviet gas pipeline in Siberia—did not pit Reagan and Thatcher against the rest, but saw the British standing with French and other European partners in defense of their economic interests.

The end of the Cold War opened up a series of complicated questions about Europe’s boundaries and global role that haunt us to this day. But when George H. W. Bush praised the creation of a “Europe whole and free,” he was praising greater cooperation, not deepening divisions along national borders.

The relationship between Britain and the EU has never been simple or easy. And the EU is itself very far from perfect. Even the most die-hard Remainer has to be willing to admit that, even as sensible Brexiteers have recognize how much Britain has been able to advance its agenda and serve its interests within the EU.

The gulf between aspiration and accomplishment is not new, nor is the failure of European leaders to get out in front of their populations on Europe. It has been far too tempting to hope integration could happen automatically, through the accumulation of regulations and economic impulses, as many technocrats in Brussels going back to Jean Monnet have hoped. Too often, European integration has been a secretive, elite project, with few prominent leaders willing to articulate a larger vision. Europe as it exists today is neither an efficient superstate nor a laissez-faire free trade area, but something in between. In that sense, even if it is far from a United States of Europe, the EU is rather like its sibling on this side of the Atlantic—a sometimes-clumsy political agglomeration that makes decisions with great difficulty, and that attracts passionate criticism from people who underestimate its virtues.

For all its weaknesses, however, until now, no one has wanted to leave (not even the British under Margaret Thatcher); and no one has ever been kicked out. Yet.

The EU is the way that it is in no small part because of British reluctance to embrace deeper federalism, and because of how the British have used their influence within Europe to hinder moves in that direction. Britain has acted as a stalking horse (and in some cases, a convenient smokescreen and scapegoat) for other EU members who want to preserve national privileges, for better or worse.

Britain has also acted as an important check on European impulses to drift away from Atlantic solidarity. That has led tart-tongued Continentals to attack London as Washington’s Trojan horse, or Poodle, or other unappealing animal metaphors. Such aspersions do no justice either to the value of transatlantic relations or to the sincere differences of interest and opinion within the West. They are, however, natural and not unwelcome evidence of disagreement within a raucous alliance of democracies, which after all should be built around healthy debate and constructive disagreement.

For that reason, no one should expect that a simple vote to Remain will resolve every question or concern that exists about the European Union’s future, and Britain’s role in it. I expect there will still be plenty of things to argue about no matter what happens on 23 June.

But the history of Britain’s role in the Atlantic world and the Europe Union shows us that even when Britain was advocating alternatives, or stepping firmly on the brakes, at no time has Britain actively sought to undermine an organization within which it was already a member. Staying out, or offering alternatives, as Britain did in the 1950s or 1960s, is one thing—encouraging the dismantling of the EU is another matter entirely.

Brexit would be a fateful step. Leaving aside the question of what specific negatives would result (a debate that is too often lost in vague fear mongering on one side and even vaguer wishful thinking on the other), Brexit would unleash a period of uncertainty; it would certainly weaken the EU, and would likely weaken Britain and the Atlantic alliance as well. As Anne Applebaum has warned, considering the possibility of disputes between England and Scotland over Europe, the UK leaving the EU “could mean the end of both of them.”

There are plenty of folks who agree with Applebaum and who embrace Brexit for that very reason. They imagine that in the long run both Britain and Europe would be somehow rejuvenated by a jolt of nationalism, and could perhaps join with other escapees from the EU to build new relationships. Such wishful thinking can go so far as to imagine Britain speedily renegotiating its status with the EU in a way that secures all the advantages of the current situation and none of the disadvantages.

There’s nothing wrong with hope and ambition, of course, but these hopes fly in the face of current realities. Not to mention the fact that such hopefulness is coming from people who resolutely refuse to place their hopefulness and creativity at the disposal of a project that has already accomplished so much.

The European project is one of the greatest accomplishments of modern politics, an effort to knit together a Continent that has been riven by war and dictatorship, and which has found its way to peace and prosperity such as has never been known before. With all its manifest flaws, it is a project worthy of the effort and the affection of any lover of European history, traditions, and society.

Britain, Europe, and the West will not profit from becoming smaller and more fragmented. Nor will Europe be saved by those who hate its open society, or who cheer on its destruction to validate their prejudices, or who embrace the strongmen and dream of high walls and lily-white futures. It should tell us something about what a bad idea Brexit is that the two international figures outside of Britain most clearly in favor of it are Donald Trump, who knows little about international affairs and less about the European Union, and has no sense of the historical value of the EU and NATO, and Vladimir Putin, who knows all too well the value of the European Union to transatlantic relations and wants to undermine them both.

Any disputes one may have with this or that element of current European politics should not obscure the titanic importance of Europe’s survival and self-assertion, not only for the Europeans themselves, but for us on this side of the Atlantic as well. The United States needs more than a scattered band of sidekicks. The United States needs a strong and united partner that shares its history, shares its western values and ideas, a partners with whom it has already forged a successful relationship. The EU has been that partner, and can be that partner into the future.

Which brings us back to the historical role that Britain has played and which it can play today. No matter how suspicious Britain has been of the continentals, Britain has never placed its critique of Europe before its commitment to the stability and future of the West. There is no reason why you should start now.