Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The United Kingdom and Europe: The Geopolitics of a Post Brexit Relationship
The United Kingdom and Europe: The Geopolitics of a Post Brexit Relationship

The United Kingdom and Europe: The Geopolitics of a Post Brexit Relationship

  • Geoffrey Sloan
  • March 8, 2018
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

The singular failure of the European referendum campaign in the United Kingdom, which can be attributed to both sides, was the inability to articulate an understanding of Britain’s geopolitical relationship to Europe. By geopolitics, I do not mean its current usage: serving merely as a synonym for international strategic rivalry, but the confluence of geography, history, and strategy. It draws attention to the importance of certain geographical patterns of political history. It fuses spatial relationships and historical causation. Critically, it can produce explanations which suggest the contemporary and future political relevance of various geographical configurations. It does not obey the artificial boundaries of disciplinary knowledge; it requires synthetic thought to address policy problems and issues.

Mackinder and Britain’s Relationship to Europe

The British thinker who was responsible for formulating this approach and whose ideas have much relevance to the geopolitical reality of a post-Brexit United Kingdom was Sir Halford Mackinder.[1] In 1902, he published a seminal book, Britain and the British Seas. In this book, Mackinder articulated the geopolitical relationship between the British Isles and Europe. This interpretation has renewed relevance as a consequence due to the referendum results from June 23, 2016. The geographical starting point for Britain’s connection to the Continent is the southeast coast of England. This area is both proximate to and opposite what he called the “linguistic frontier of Europe,” where what he called the Teutonic and Romance peoples converged. These two streams of influence had a geographical expression in the form of the Rhine River and delta and the Seine River and its estuary. Uniquely, both influences had shaped Britain: “To the Teutonic – Easterling and Norsemen – England owes her civil institutions and her language; to the peoples of the west and south, her Christianity and her scholarship.”

Britain’s relationship to Europe can be described as a geopolitical paradox. No British or European leader has recognized or acknowledged this before or after the Brexit vote. Mackinder had indentified a pivotal geographical pattern of political history and gave expression to it: “Britain is part of Europe, but not in it.” He then articulated the implications for practical conduct: “Great consequences lie in the simple statements that Britain is an island group, set in an ocean, but off the shores of the great continent; that the opposing shores are indented; and that the domain of the two historic races come down to the sea precisely at the narrowest strait between the mainland and the island.” This analysis still has much to recommend 116 years later. Of course, analytical terms change. But whether we say France and Germany or the prosperous North and the debt-burdened South or, like Mackinder, the Teutonic and Romance peoples, the same large point is made; and it is still the great ports and the historical and living hinterlands of the Elbe, the Rhine, the Scheldt and the Seine and, no less, of the British archipelago that shape and distinguish these economies.

It would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that much has changed in the relationship between Britain and Europe since 1902. Given the importance of trade with Europe, if Mackinder were alive today, he would have taken into account the pertinence of these economic realities. The geopolitical relationship between Britain and Europe has at its heart two qualities that are difficult to align: mutability and paradox. They constitute the essence of the policy challenge that the Conservative Government of Prime Minister Theresa May has to resolve.

History illuminates the pertinence of the first quality in that it was not until the Tudor period that the English Channel became an effective separating boundary. Before then, Mackinder argued that: “London was more closely connected on the tide ways with Paris, Flanders, and the Hanseatic cities than with Scotland or Ireland or Wales.” He understood that geography was not an immutable phenomenon. It could, in certain circumstances, condition other factors, and its meaning, in a political and strategic sense, could change. English and Scottish trade was European before it was Atlantic and remained importantly European even when its dynamic became Atlantic; trade became more European after 1973 though trade and investment remained significantly Atlantic, but it was dynamic in either direction. The dynamic factor—services—was born in the Atlantic imperial economy. After the end of empire and the shift into “Europe,” the City of London’s services flourished. They remained surprisingly global, not European.

The recognition of economic change in geopolitics is not a rejection of geographical significance, but recognition of the synthetic flow of the grain. Writing in 1890, Mackinder declared: “The course of politics is a product of two sets of forces, compelling and guiding. The impetus is from the past, in the history embedded in a people’s character and tradition. The present guides the movement by economic wants and geographical opportunities. Statesmen and diplomats succeed and fail pretty much as they recognise the irresistible power of these forces”

The critical question is what are the chances of the current British political class recognizing and engaging with these geopolitical realities? I would suggest they are non-existent. Instead, they have placed their faith in their ability to negotiate in a manner that is redolent of the merchant traders struggling for short-term margins with no sense of strategic issues. The consequences of such attitudes have historical form. The Bolshevik Ivan Maisky, who was the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom between 1932 and 1943, recognized the futility of this approach. Witnessing the growing crisis on the European continent prior to the Second World War, he made two incisive comments in his diary. First what it was like to be on the receiving end of these negotiations. On the May 18, 1939, Maisky observed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain “bargaining with us like an old gypsy, trying to foist a bad horse on us instead of a good one. It won’t work.” Secondly, he recognised the folly of imputing to your opponent’s assumptions that are your own. On the May 21, 1938, he wrote, “These Englishmen perceive [European dictators] as they would a business man from the City or an English country gentleman. They could not be more mistaken.” History does not repeat itself, but it is certainly going to rhyme.

Britain: In and Out of Europe  

We did not have hard appeasement, we had a softer version; we did not have a hard anti-fascism, we had a soft one. We were not “in Europe” politically until we were all for entry; we were “out” of the Euro. Paradoxically, British parliamentarians voted for the Lisbon Treaty, whose aim was to facilitate greater economic and political integration in the EU. This could have been stopped by a referendum if the British electorate had been given the one they were promised by the then-Labour government.

The particular choices with respect to Brexit are big and can change with surprising speed. However, the geopolitical pattern is clear: the United Kingdom is an important but peripheral European state with a deep history that both binds and separates. Geopolitics is not going away. There are hard choices to be made, and they will not be all in the same direction. The current government cannot split the difference on great issues and hope to remain unaffected by seeking a gentleman’s agreement not to press us too hard. An inability of the British political class  to grasp and articulate the geopolitical reality that Mackinder so persuasively identified will deprive the British people of the holy grail of geopolitical analysis: to give judgement in practical conduct. Now is the time when the United Kingdom needs it the most.

[1] To learn more about Sir Halford Mackinder, read his biograph at