31 January 2020

Professor Brendan Simms on where next for Europe and Britain

By Brendan Simms

With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a series of essays, podcasts and interviews on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism and corruption.

Frank Lawton: Is there such a thing as historical thinking – and is it of use to policy makers?

Brendan Simms: I don’t think there’s such a thing as a straightforward lesson from history. What I think you have, is the idea that history kind of seeps into the mind.  It provides a framework way of thinking, which is very difficult to define, but it doesn’t provide straightforward lessons. A nation’s history is both a constraint and a stimulus.

Do you see Brexit as a continuation of Britain’s foreign policy history or an abnegation of it?

Well, as I said, in my book Britain’s Europe, Brexit was neither a coincidence, nor was it entirely preordained. I think you can see in the past two very clear strands of British thinking on Europe:  broadly speaking, those who engage, and those who stand aloof – and even those who engage don’t necessarily regard Europe as something that you want to be part of as a political project. So I think that kind of history informs the Brexit debate.

We often hear the suggestion in the media that we’re living through some kind of echo of the 1930s – do you think there’s any merit in that?

I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s even the remotest chance of a general right-wing surge in Germany, because the public sphere is so sensitised to anything that would reek of a relapse into national socialism. Admittedly, with AfD and other groups, you have a stronger right wing, and in some cases even extreme right-wing fringe than in recent times. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near the 1930s. The only comparison with the 1930s that might be halfway helpful is perhaps the appeasement analogy with Mr. Putin, because we have accepted his annexation of the Crimea, and the war that he started in eastern Ukraine. And while he’s obviously not Hitler, and Russia is not the German Reich of the 1930s, there are, I think certain disquieting parallels there about the way in which we’ve handled this. I think, Mr Putin is a threat, both in the foreign policy sense and in terms of his impact on domestic politics.

To return to domestic politics then – you’ve often shown in your books how Europe has affected Britain’s constitutional design. How do you think Brexit will change our constitution?

The reason for the existence of the United Kingdom in the form that we have it goes back to really two impulses. One is to find a structure that resolves the relationship with the nations on our islands and effectively prevents England or the English from dominating the others. But it also comes from  a strategic impulse – on the English side to rally the entire resources of these islands against European hegemon – but also to prevent European hegemon from exploiting the fragmentation of these islands (by using Scotland or Ireland as a backdoor into England).

So the Great Britain that emerges in 1707 and then the United Kingdom in 1801 with the Irish union –  both of those measures are in the context in the first case of the War of the Spanish Succession. (so rallying the British Isles against Louis XIV), and in the latter case, in the context of the revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, (so rallying to combined forces of the United Kingdom against the external enemy). Now of course Brexit changes that calculus. But I think it’s not at all clear what the outcome of that change will be. Because while it is true that in the short-term Brexit puts the constitutional arrangements United Kingdom under pressure (by virtue of the fact that 60% of Scots voted to remain, and 55% of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain) I think it is not at all likely that this will lead to fragmentation of the United Kingdom.

The reason why I say that is, first of all, because the fraying of the bonds of the United Kingdom in advance of Brexit were already very visible. So you had the referendum in 2014. This was at a time when there was no prospect really of Brexit and yet Independence was seen off only with a small margin. And it’s an uncomfortable truth, I think, that the European Union provided a permissive environment for Scottish nationalism. The closer the links to Brussels, the greater the distance to Westminster. And actually, Scottish independence economically was only really possible in a context where both an independent Scotland and the rest of United Kingdom are part of the European Union. The minute they diverged, of course, you have the prospect of a hard border separating Scotland from at least two thirds of its markets.

So my prediction would be that there will be quite a lot of surface turbulence, but that ultimately, Brexit makes Scottish independence less rather than more likely.

Do you see a future for a federal UK?

I think the suggestions of a federal UK will ultimately impale themselves on one very simple fact, which is that England is much larger than any of the other nations and that the English have no desire, because they’ve been asked and they r ejected it, to divide themselves into regions. And therefore, any federal system that gives England as a whole a separate role will effectively mean handing over the governance of the entire United Kingdom to England.

In other words, if you have independence or self-rule for England, you will have no self-rule or participation at all for the other nations. This would be the opposite of what was intended. People don’t seem to realise that the United Kingdom is also an instrument for the containment of England.

How do you see the next phase of Brexit going?

So much of Europe’s legal and economic life is now dominated by the European Union. And so you have a clash really between the geo-legal and geo-economic ordering system of the EU, and the geopolitical and geo-military ordering system of Europe, in which the United Kingdom has a much bigger role.  I think the trick will be to find some kind of compromise or trade off, where the European Union and the UK bind together in some form of Confederation, that they re-stitch this relationship. Obviously, it won’t be the same, but there’s a great deal also that the European Union stands to benefit from good relationship with the UK.

So what does this all mean for Europe, what direction do you hope to see the EU travel?

Well, what I’d hope to see and I have been calling for some time, is a full political union of mainland Europe which needs to have the same union, that Scotland and England had in 1707, and – perhaps this would be an even better analogy – the United States had in the late 1780s. And that’s the only way of stabilising the currency, securing the border and deterring people like Mr. Putin. I think Brexit both helps and hinders that project.

I was always of the view that Britain would never be part of this project. Not that I wouldn’t want it to be – I would have been delighted if it had been, it would have greatly improved the project – but for reasons to do with history, the European Union is not something that the United Kingdom needs in the same way as other European countries needed.

Why? Because the United Kingdom was a victor power in the Second World War. So the European Union very crudely speaking, gives mainland Europeans something that they never had, or lost, In the 20th century, and in the case of Britain very broadly speaking, although there are many economic benefits and other benefits, in a sense it was fixing something that wasn’t broken.

So having Britain out of the European Union gives the European Union a chance, therefore, to push forward with integration projects. So that was a necessary condition for what I’ve been calling for. It’s not a sufficient condition, because of course, the European Union since 2016 hasn’t done this, but it now no longer has Britain to hide behind – they can’t say we would like to do this but the British won’t let us, or we don’t want to frighten the British and cause Brexit.

Do you think the illiberal governments in the East of Europe are a threat to this project?

I think they are clearly a threat but I would also resist the idea that illiberalism is particularly stronger in the East – after the National Front is a huge party in France. AfD is not small, in Germany, and probably one of the most distressing vistas we’ve had of last couple of years has been the situation in Catalonia, where European conceptions of the rule of law have been overturned and you’ve had the imprisonment of peaceful protesters and the peaceful movement which is calling for a national state within the European Union.

So I think there are many, many threats to this project. Some of them are a illiberal threats. Some of them are liberal threats, some of them are conservative, some are left wing – anybody who clings to the separate sovereign nation state in mainland Europe is an obstacle to the full political union of Europe.

Are you optimistic about where things are going?

My anxiety is more around fragmentation, rather than the emergence of some demagogue who’s going to take over the whole of Europe. The model I fear is that of the old Holy Roman Empire, which is simply is dissolved in 1806, or Poland, which is just successively partitioned in the course of the 1770s and the 1790s. If you ask me, what the prospect is? I am a perennial optimist. I think that Europeans, to paraphrase Churchill on the Americans, will finally do the right thing, but only once they’ve exhausted all other options first.

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Brendan Simms is Professor of the History of International Relations at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. His books include 'Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation', and 'Hitler: Only the World was Enough'