Brexit has so far proven to be an excruciating game of political volleyball between London and Brussels. In the recent past, Prime Minister Theresa May has stated the UK unwaveringly honours its European obligations because of its shared heritage. By contrast, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has repeatedly sneered at the UK: First claiming that English is a dead language, Juncker later thanked Britain for rescuing the continent from Nazism and the spectre of Soviet Russia, before proceeding to demand vast sums of money.
Whilst the UK has undeniable moral commitments to honour any outstanding financial commitments, the Europeans themselves had long fluctuated on the exact amount due. Now it has been announced that Downing Street offered €50 billion to withdraw from the bloc (a report the British government has unsurprisingly downplayed). It is highly likely a plethora of criticism will be flung by prominent Cabinet officials and backbenchers – as well as by the Labour opposition – at May in the coming days. But the petty quarrels of domestic governance will overshadow a greater power struggle currently waged on the international stage.
Brexit, therefore, should be perceived through the following question: Does the UK need Europe more than Europe needs the UK?
It is true we are living in a moment of drastic geopolitical flux: the rise of Chinese authoritarianism; Russian irredentism; the export of Islamist extremism from the Middle East; and the temperamental administration of President Trump in the US all create the perception of Western decline and the erosion of the rules-based, liberal international order. But our decline is a political choice. If our policymakers choose to make a success of Brexit, there is no reason to suggest we cannot punch above our weight and engage more broadly with countries outside the EU. It would be vital, moreover, for London to expand its influence amongst the abundant economies of the Indo-Pacific. Yet none of this would be achievable if we turn our backs on our European neighbours.
For the past five hundred years, Britain has permanently opposed the rise of a dominating continental tyrant. Whilst our policymakers have made enormous miscalculations, such missteps were infrequent and temporary. We have understood that both our acquiescence to regional dictatorship and our abstention from the European mainland have necessitated later intervention with hiked costs in blood and treasure. It is why the UK has actively mediated the balance of power amongst the principal European orderers. It is why Britain developed a liberal geostrategy aspiring to maintain equilibrium to the benefit of large and small states alike. And it is why both London and Washington consolidated this longstanding approach within a broader framework that kept the Americans in, the Germans (i.e., any internal actor) down, and the Russians out.
It is true that European integration has attempted to eradicate antiquated hostilities between the various states. But Nato has achieved far more in sustaining peace for over seven decades. As a result, British military posture (albeit in decline and due to undergo further reductions to our Armed Forces) is a vital element of the European order. Having consistently outspent our neighbours, who have shirked their defence responsibilities (with recent notable exceptions to Poland and the Baltic nations), the UK is as Brendan Simms has argued, the last European Great Power.
So who needs whom more? Europe relies on the military power of the Anglosphere to sustain an equilibrium beneficial to all. Yet the UK needs a stable neighbourhood to push out into the world and punch above its weight. Above all, Britain is both an island nation and a continental state. It is both apart from Europe and a part of Europe.