Brexit represented a unique event in the history of European integration, marking the first time a member state left the European Union. But we still have no clear idea of why we took such an epochal step, and Keir Starmer’s position of ‘make Brexit work’ leaves us none the wiser. So we thought we would turn back to an article we published last June for possible enlightenment. It attributed Brexit in large part to Britain’s colonial past and a preference for imperialism over integration, which sets us apart from our European neighbours. Is this now Labour’s outlook too?
The EU’s formation was primarily driven by failing or already failed European empires, despite the common perception of the EU as a mere gathering of nation-states. Confronting the responsibility for centuries of imperialism is a challenging task, but doing so would allow Europe to acknowledge its remarkable recovery from empire and move forward in a distinct and positive manner.
The EU’s origin ‘myth’
The prevailing belief that Europe consists of nation-states that willingly came together to create the EU is a misconstrued myth, historian Timothy Snyder argues in his ‘Speech to Europe 2019’. When examining the founding countries of the European project, Snyder points out they were not nation-states at the time and had never truly functioned as such throughout their history: Germany had recently suffered a decisive and catastrophic defeat in World War II – a conflict deeply intertwined with colonialist ambitions. Similarly, Italy had experienced defeat in colonial wars in Africa and the Balkans. The Netherlands faced defeat in a protracted colonial war fought from 1945 to 1949, while Belgium lost control of the Congo in 1960. France, having been defeated in both Indochina and Algeria, underwent a decisive shift towards Europe in the early 1960s under General de Gaulle. It was their new geopolitical positions that ultimately led them towards European integration.
By the time we joined the then European Economic Communiity (EEC) in 1973, our empire had largely disintegrated, transforming us from a global power to a mid-level player. We faced the challenge of relinquishing our economic dependence on declining Commonwealth markets and abandoning any aspirations of maintaining an enduring imperial role. Joining the EEC meant accepting an equal membership amongst other states rather than occupying a prominent position as we had within the Commonwealth. However, even as we signed up to integration, we still sought exceptions and opt-outs, maintaining a degree of exceptionalism.
De Gaulle understood the British psyche
De Gaulle, had he lived, would not have been surprised. He had a shrewd understanding of the British psyche and knew how difficult we would find pivoting to our new, more modest role. During the 1960s, he twice blocked us from joining, and it was only after his death that our accession to the EEC took place. As Nicholas Parsons writes:
“His refusal to let Britain join the EEC was not just Anglophobia and dislike of upsetting the Community’s economic and political balance to the disadvantage of France. He also – accurately – outlined how such a consortium was alien to British political, constitutional and diplomatic tradition. It would, he predicted, meet with opposition once the British understood what it involved.”
He was, of course, ultimately proved right.
The EU’s enlargement in the 1990s and 2000s included many countries that had only emerged after the First World War. This expansion brought together both former imperial centres and countries that were formerly at the periphery of empires, such as those from the Warsaw Pact.
Snyder suggests recognising this imperial historical context is crucial because it challenges the prevailing notion of innocent nation-states coming together to create a trading bloc. Instead, the EU represents the most successful response to the question of what comes after empire. The EU has established a vast area of prosperity, creating the largest economy in history and fostering neighbouring welfare states and democracies. This achievement has no parallel elsewhere in the world.
Contrary to some external perceptions, the European Union strengthens the European nation-states. Debates about sovereignty within the EU are essentially nonsensical, as never before have so many European countries coexisted and grown stronger together. Through ‘pooled sovereignty’, the EU enhances the internal strength of its member states and allows them to realise objectives they would be unable to achieve on their own, such as creating an ambitious climate-change programme. Additionally, the EU acts as a powerful buffer against the forces of globalisation: a formidable trading bloc that provides external protection to its member states.
More recently, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy – a clause in the Treaty of Lisbon – has allowed it to adopt severe economic and individual sanctions in retaliation. In addition, the EU – beyond its cooperation agreement with NATO – has become a significant donor of military, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
EU’s threat to autocratic states
The EU’s enemies, such as Russia, feel threatened by the bloc’s future, dominated by prosperity, democracy and the rule of law. These adversaries aim to undermine the EU by targeting its weakest point: the belief that member states can revert to nation-states – despite the fact that they never truly were before they joined.
Nostalgia played a major role in the Leave campaign which is believed to have been backed by Russia. Figures such as Johnson and Farage argued that our exit would enable us to regain control of our borders and restore our former greatness. The campaign tended to romanticise the days of the British Empire, a time when our supremacy was associated with racial and cultural superiority. However, this romanticisation overlooks the exploitation and subjugation based on race that characterised our colonial rule.
With Brexit, we have once again turned our attention to the Commonwealth. It is no coincidence that Nigel Farage emphasised ties with countries like India and Australia while expressing a preference for migrants from these regions over Eastern Europe. This shift reflects a post-imperial desire for renewed greatness, but it masks the brutal truth and legacy of the British Empire.
Our rose-tinted view of our imperial history and our reluctance to confront the reality and legacy of the British Empire, including its associated racism, has plunged Britain into an uncertain and perilous future. Our European neighbours chose integration over imperialism, moving on from their past to create a new future together. In voting for Brexit, we have not only missed the opportunity for continued progress and unity within the European Union, but we have failed as a country to truly confront and come to terms with our imperial past.
We seem to be unable to get past ideas of British exceptionalism. Next week we hope to hear from Europe’s diplomats on what they need from us when we do.