In this article, I discuss some observations regarding Brexit – Britain’s intention to leave the European Union – that merit serious thought: Europe is at a cross roads, and Brexit occurs during – and negatively contributes to – a crucial phase of its development.
Brexit will not make, but break both Great Britain itself, and the European Union.
Brexit is a serious mistake with very serious – detrimental – consequences not only for Britain itself – which is only chasing phantoms, and damaging its already diminished power and influence – but also for the European Union, and global stability.
In my research, I argue that we are currently in a volatile phase of the development of the current international order (the ‘United Nations’): In this phase of development issues between states cannot be solved and tensions not be released, which results in stagnation and eventually in a systemic crisis.
That is what also happened four times during the period 1495-1945. The high-tension levels in the System, typically result in increasingly radical ‘solutions’, of which not only the idea of a Brexit is an example, but also the election of Trump in the United States as its latest president, the spreading of radical religious ideas, and populism in Europe.
INTEGRATION IS A LONG-TERM TREND
My research also shows that on the long-term, states must and will integrate, to reap the benefits from closer cooperation, and the opportunities economies of scale and scope provide. Integration contributes to our collective security, well-being, and survival.
On the long-term – at least since 1495 – this is the dominant trend.
The period 1495-1945, is a distinct phase in a long-term process of social integration and expansion, of which Europe was the main engine. Integration in Europe was accomplished through a so-called ‘finite-time singularity dynamic’ that was accompanied by four accelerating war cycles, and reached its singularity in finite time in 1939, when Europe reached its critical connectivity threshold, consequently collapsed, and made a transition to non-anarchistic structures, following the Second World War (1939-1945).
A process that was only temporarily ‘delayed’ because of the intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet-Union (better known as the Cold War, 1945-1991), but accelerated again in 1991, when the Soviet-Union collapsed.
Integration and not fragmentation is the long-term trend, the simple reason that it brings more benefits. The reason integration in the past (?) could only be accomplished by war, lies in the anarchistic nature of the International System, and in laws and rules that typically apply to interactions between states in such systems.
But over time – after a number of forceful impulses to integration, following the collapse of the Soviet-Union in 1991, efforts to further integrate Europe stagnated and came eventually to a halt. Brexit now threatens to reverse a hopeful trend towards further integration into fragmentation. The consequence – not only for Europe – will be disastrous.
Two factors in particular played an important role in this reversal: (1) The European Union – ‘Brussels’ – overreach, and (2) Britain’s reluctant membership, and distorted self-image.
THE EUROPEAN UNION SUFFERS FROM OVERREACH AND A STRUCTURAL LACK OF SELF REFLECTION
A social system – like a state, but also the European Union – has ‘natural’ limitations: States – and the European Union – must balance two competing ‘trends’ to be (and stay) effective and viable: (1) the economies of scale and scope that can be exploited with expansion, and (2) the increasing complexity of governing increasing diversity (and ‘size’) that accompanies expansion.
Figure 1: Balancing competing forces is a challenge (Source: The Huffington Post).
The European Union has tried to bridge these competing ‘forces’ with increasing its bureaucracy. This did however not solve, but to the contrary add to its (mounting) problems and challenges. It also affected the Union’s (already limited) legitimacy.
The European Union is a clear case of ‘overreach’, but it seems that it cannot stop its ‘momentum’ towards further expansion and over regulating, and that its – by now – ‘life-threatening’ shortcomings do not result in self-reflection.
The challenges the European Union now faces – which are closely related to the condition of the International System – further aggravated and exposed the ‘overreach’ and shortcomings of the European Union. Even ‘Brexit’ – at least until now – was not a sufficient shock to the European Union, to wake the Union out of its comatose hypnosis.
The other factor that contributed to stagnation of further integration of Europe – which is closely related to the first just discussed factor – concerns the ‘reluctant’ – half-hearted – membership of Britain of the European Union since its accession in 1973. Britain is not only leaving first, but also joined very reluctantly in 1973, when it was finally convinced that it could win more than loose with further European integration (by finally joining the ‘European Community’, as the European project was called at that stage). British reluctance led to many ‘ifs and buts’.
GREAT BRITAIN WAS THE MOST POWERFUL AND INFLUENTIAL GREAT POWER
British reluctance has a long history, but a rather simple explanation, and is closely related to the dominant role Great Britain achieved – and successfully used to its own advantage – during the period 1495-1939, and ended abruptly through the Second World War (1939-1945). At least to a significant extent, Great Britain became the victim of its own success.
During this period, by means of three systemic wars – that were ‘used’ by the System to periodically upgrade its overdue international order – Great Britain came out ‘on top’ in the status and power hierarchy of the System, by playing in all three cases a decisive role in designing and implementing upgraded international orders.
Dominant Great Powers that emerge from systemic wars, are typically in an influential position to grant themselves certain privileges that then are embedded in the international order that is implemented. Great Britain was the only Great Power, that accomplished this feat three times. Consequently, the successive international orders that were implemented during the period 1495-1939, increasingly became ‘British’, and especially promoted British interests. This ‘effect’, I refer to as the ‘powerful-become-more-powerful-effect’, through which Great Powers increase their power and influence by implementing favorable international orders that especially promote their specific interests. The successive international orders that were implemented during the period 1495-1939, increasingly reflected British power, influence and interests.
During that period (1495-1939) – supported by international (in fact European) orders that promoted its interests – Great Britain was (not coincidentally) also able to expand itself to the non-core of the System (outside Europe) by establishing the British Empire that allowed it to efficiently exploit its colonies (which also further added to its power and influence in Europe).
THE UNITED STATES CUNNINGLY OUTMANEUVERED AND NEUTRALIZED GREAT BRITAIN
The Second World War (the fourth systemic war, 1939-1945) – when Britain was shortly before at the pinnacle of its power and influence – was however instrumental in the ‘sudden’ (but not surprising) collapse of this position of maximum power and influence.
Three factors contributed to this collapse of Great Britain: (1) the fact that the European order collapsed (the finite-time singularity reached the critical connectivity threshold), which resulted in a (next) total and exhaustive war in Europe, (2) populations of colonies which became increasingly aware of their rights for self-determination, and (3) the fact that Japan and the United States became full members – Great Powers – of the now global (and no longer European) System.
It was the United States who successfully grabbed the opportunities that now presented themselves.
The United States – in a similar geopolitical position at a global stage, as was Great Britain was in Europe (on the periphery, surrounded by water) – could not afford challengers, like Germany (striving for dominance in Europe) and Japan (striving for dominance in Asia), who could threaten its expansive ambitions, and its so-called (extended) ‘Manifest Destiny’.
Even before its active involvement in the (what would become) Second World War, the United States made its political objectives for the (upcoming) war abundantly clear, which would define a next global order, Roosevelt very well understood.
These political (and honorable, that must be said) war objectives were laid down in the ‘Atlantic Charter’ in August 1941, and would become eventually the fundament for the United Nations and NATO, and guide the ‘European project’. They served above all American interests.
Because of the dire position of Great Britain (and Europe) at that stage (Europe was ‘overrun’ by Germany, Britain was under attack) Roosevelt could successfully ‘recruit’ Churchill as the first ‘follower’ of this charter (eventually all American allies joined the Charter), despite the high price Great Britain had to pay. Great Britain – Churchill – was not in a position to negotiate, its survival was dependent on the support of the United States.
Great Britain could in fact not experience a greater ‘degradation’ than was offered by the United States, which was (eventually) only partially compensated by a permanent membership of the Security Council of the United Nations (with veto-right), and the ‘legitimate’ possession of nuclear capabilities. The Atlantic Charter legitimized America’s claim (which were backed up by sufficient power) for a dominant role at the global stage, following the Second World War.
Even the privileges that were granted to Great Britain (and later France) were also – and above all – in the interest of the United States, which was then assured by the loyal support of two other (of eventually five) permanent members in the Security Council of the United Nations. Roosevelt successfully established a ‘Pax Americana’, by outmaneuvering its (potential) challengers not only on the battle fields in Europe and Asia, but also at the negotiating table.
The Cold War, and the dependence of Western Europe for its survival – including Great Britain, France and Germany – on the United States, further enabled the United States to establish itself as the ultimate super power. Its status was (fully) confirmed, when the Soviet-Union in 1991 – under pressure of America’s economic and military power, and cultural appeal – finally collapsed.
During the post war period, Great Britain (as well as France) lost their colonies, were completely dependent on the United States for their security (as was the rest of Western Europe), and were in fact diminished to Great Power in name only, through the privileges granted by the United States.
A SOUR APPLE THAT (STILL) IS HARD TO SWALLOW
Post war Europe (initially only Western Europe) and eventually the European Union, can be considered an extension of these same principles. The European Union is built on democratic principles, on equality of its member states. Britain in fact had become a victim of its own success, of the successive international orders it helped implement, that eventually resulted in a European (post war) order based on democratic principles.
Britain was degraded from the most powerful Great Power with a global empire, to just a ‘normal’ member of the European Union, equivalent to countries as Luxembourg and The Netherlands, in fact, in just a couple of years. That hurts. And I argue, that this degradation came – and still comes – with some ‘psychological’ issues: Great Britain was – and is – until now not able to adjust its national identity and self-esteem with its degraded status.
It can be argued, that Britain’s efforts for ‘compensation’ – of which Brexit is a consequence – and Russia’s current efforts to re-establish its forgone status, are in the basis similar motivations, although Russia (do not misunderstand me) serves itself with fundamentally different methods. Both ‘corrections’ and how they play out, will shape and determine Europe’s future.
British sentiments and frustrations, the European Union’s increasing ineffectiveness and unwillingness to face its serious flaws, and challenges that presented themselves to Europe (and globally) at an accelerating rate, are the root causes of Brexit.
That Britain is the first to exit – as I explain in this article – should not come as a surprise given its past of power, influence, and prestige. Britain should make sure that it will now not again be ‘outsmarted’ – as Roosevelt cunningly accomplished – by a rancorous European Union that feels itself dismissed by Britain, and seems – as the reaction of certain member states to Brexit suggests – already to revel in British ‘Schadenfreude’ (a French equivalent of this word would be more appropriate, in this context).
Brexit will have no winners – at least not in Europe – but only losers.
A successful Brexit is a complete illusion, based on a wrong assessment of (1) Great Britain’s position in Europe (it has become highly (economically) integrated with and dependent on other European states), of (2) Great Britain’s position at the global stage (which is seriously diminished: Great Britain cannot ‘rule the waves’ again, as was the case in (long) foregone times, and of (3) Great Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States, which does not exist anymore (assuming it ever did).
This ‘special’ relationship was only introduced, to conceal Britain’s degradation in which the United States was highly instrumental; a simple gesture the United States was (until now) willing to make: Great Britain has made the United States, but had become Britain in the process.
Important to note: Britain’s unrealistic efforts to re-establish itself as a Great Power with significant influence at the global stage, by ‘going it alone’, will in fact further undermine the so-called special relationship with the United States, it still seems to revel in: Brexit will weaken and expose Great Britain’s weaknesses, and negatively affect Britain’s strategic utility for the United States in Europe.
Britain should re-evaluate its idea – illusion – of a special relationship with the United States, and instead focus on its (very) special relationship with Europe, which ultimately gives it more power and strategic utility.
Brexit does not serve any interest, not of Great Britain itself, not of the European Union, not of the United States, and not of the international order.
Great Britain needs Europe – the European Union – and the European Union needs Great Britain; let’s face the facts, and act accordingly.
EUROPE ALSO NEEDS GREAT BRITAIN
Presently, apart from economic and financial challenges, Europe is in a dire position and challenged from at least three ‘fronts’: From the east by Russia who tries to re-establish its former spheres of influence by reclaiming territory and by undermining the European Union’s unity and cohesion (as far as the European Union needs any help to achieve this).
From the South, as a consequence of (spreading) instability in the Middle East and Africa, which results in streams of refugees – in numbers – Europe cannot (and is not prepared to) take adequate care off. Russia and Turkey (together?) are cunningly exploiting this European vulnerability.
And from the West by the current American leadership, that is actively undermining the European Union and NATO, and empowering Russia.
The American ‘agenda’ does not seem to have changed much since Roosevelt – it are still interests that dictate policy – but its methods obviously have.
As I explained, the European Union is not able to respond adequately to these challenges; it still is ‘stuck in the middle’ – states have transferred sovereignty to Brussels, while the Union itself is not yet fully crystallized – and Brexit will only add to its problems and challenges.
Brexit will cost valuable time, energy and focus, cause tensions between Great Britain and the other member states, cause tensions between the ‘remaining’ member states over the negotiating results that are (not) to be accomplished, and in the end it will only result in a (further) depleted, weakened and fragmented European Union, and Great Britain. Britain and the European Union are following a loose/loose-path; the word strategy would suggest that there is a logic to the ambitions and plans of both the European Union and Great Britain.
It is the responsibility of European and British politicians to stop this folly: Europe and its population cannot and may not be governed by ‘ego’s’, institutional interests, and narrowly defined national interests. Introspection – and concessions – are required on both sides. ‘Schadenfreude’ may not be allowed to guide choices.
Brexit must not be triggered, but instead be used as a trigger to design and implement an upgraded European order, that can be effective and will serve Europe’s interests.
Our European interests – its collective security and well-being, including Great Britain’s – are too closely linked to allow for re-nationalization. Europe must be prepared – rather (very) sooner, than later – to play a major role consistent with its interests and responsibilities at the global stage. Much is at stake.
The alternative is to be degraded to a quarreling region of fragmented states and communities with no future, which despite 450 years of war – and the high price that was paid for the benefits these wars ultimately brought – is unable to step over the shadows of its shared past.