A Geopolitical Take on the Roots That Led to the Referendum
Britons will vote in an historic referendum June 23 to determine whether the United Kingdom will remain part of the European Union. Britain is the first, though likely not the last, country to call for such a vote, whether binding or not. And it is easy to see why the United Kingdom — which has always exhibited a degree of ambivalence about the Continental bloc — would lead the way, particularly with intertwined economic weakness, migration crisis and rising nationalist sentiment redefining the political landscape of the Continent. The “Brexit” referendum is more properly viewed as an outgrowth of Britain’s long-term geopolitical survival strategy — a carefully thought-out stance that allows it to pivot as needed between the United States and Europe to secure its own strategic interests.
Britons will vote in an historic referendum June 23 to determine whether the United Kingdom will remain part of the European Union. Britain is the first, though likely not the last, country to call for such a vote, whether binding or not. And it is easy to see why the United Kingdom — which has always exhibited a degree of ambivalence about the Continental bloc — would lead the way, particularly with intertwined economic weakness, migration crisis and rising nationalist sentiment redefining the political landscape of the Continent.
But it should be remembered that Prime Minister David Cameron signaled his intentions for such a referendum in early 2013, well before migration flows from Middle Eastern conflict zones surged to epic proportions and before many of the EU’s nationalist and anti-establishment parties commanded the sizable voter base they claim today. The “Brexit” referendum is more properly viewed as an outgrowth of Britain’s long-term geopolitical survival strategy — a carefully thought-out stance that allows it to pivot as needed between the United States and Europe to secure its own strategic interests.
The Rise of Britain
As an empire on whose “dominions the sun never sets,” the British could think with a certain degree of gratitude of Napoleon, who had eliminated European navies that might have challenged Britain’s own prior to the Battle of Trafalgar. And with Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo, Britain claimed dominance over the North Atlantic — the key to global power in the 19th century that gave control over trade routes into the Indian and Pacific oceans.
This opportunity aligned with economic imperatives. Not only was Britain the dominant political and military power, it also was emerging as the leader in the Industrial Revolution then underway in Europe. Napoleon’s devastation of continental Europe, the collapse of French power and the underdevelopment of the United States at that time gave Britain an advantage and an opportunity.
As a manufacturer, it needed raw materials available only abroad, markets to absorb British production and trade routes supported by strategically located supply stations. The British Empire was foremost a trading bloc. Britain resisted encroachment by integrating potential adversaries into trade relationships with the empire that it viewed as beneficial. In addition, the colonies, which saw the benefits of increased trade, would reinforce the defense of the empire.
For most of the 19th century, Britain was not under military pressure. But two major shifts toward the end of the century began to change this reality.
The German and U.S. Challenges
The first was the unification of Germany, in 1871. Once unified, Germany became the most dynamic economy in Europe. Britain had not had to compete for economic primacy since Waterloo, but Germany pressed Britain heavily, underselling British goods with its more efficient production.
The second challenge came from the United States, which also was industrializing at a dramatic pace — a process ironically underwritten by investors from Britain seeking higher returns than they could get at home. The U.S. industrial base created a navy that surpassed the British navy in size early in the 20th century. The window of opportunity that had opened with the defeat of Napoleon was closing as Germany and the United States pressed Britain, even if in an uncoordinated fashion.
The German challenge culminated in World War I, a catastrophe for Britain and for the rest of Europe. Apart from decimating a generation of men, the cost of the war undermined Britain’s economic base, subtly shifting London’s relationship with its empire.
Moreover, British power no longer seemed inevitable, raising the question among those who had not benefitted from British imperialism as to whether the empire could be broken. Britain became more dependent on its empire, somewhat shifting the mutuality of relations. And the cost of policing the empire became prohibitive relative to the benefits. Additionally, the United States was emerging as a potential alternative partner for the components of the empire — and the German question was not closed.
World War II, the second round of the German war, broke Britain’s power. It was during this war that the balance of power between the United States and Britain shifted completely. Britain emerged from the war vastly weaker economically and militarily than the United States. Though it retained its empire, its ability to hold it depended on the United States. Britain no longer could hold it unilaterally.
In the postwar era, Britain was absorbed with developing strategies to cope with the transient nature of its imperial power. In time, Britain came to define its place in the world as a pivotal point between continental Europe and the United States in particular.
The Lieutenant Strategy
Recognizing the United States’ economic and military primacy, Britain aligned itself with the U.S.-dominated alliance system and the postwar financial arrangements lumped together under the Bretton Woods system. The British, however, added a dimension to this: Unable to match the United States militarily, they outstripped other American allies both in the quantity of their military resources and in their willingness to use them at the behest of the Americans.
We might call this the“lieutenant strategy.” Britain could not be America’s equal. However, it could in effect be America’s lieutenant, wielding a military force that outstripped in number — and technical sophistication — the forces deployed by other European countries.
The British maintained a “full-spectrum” military force, smaller than the U.S. military but more capable across the board than militaries of other U.S. allies.
The goal was to accept a subordinate position without being simply another U.S. ally. The British used that relationship to extract special concessions and considerations other allies did not receive.
Through this “special relationship,” they also were able to influence U.S. policy in ways others couldn’t. The United States was not motivated to go along merely out of sentiment based on shared history, although that played a part.
Rather, like all great powers, the United States wanted to engage in coalition warfare and near-warfare along with burden-sharing. Britain was prepared to play this role more effectively than other countries, thereby maintaining a global influence based on its ability to prompt the use of U.S. forces in its interest.
There were two dangers for the British in this relationship.
The first was the cost of maintaining the force relative to the benefits. In extremis, the potential benefits were great. In normal times, the case easily could be made that the cost outstripped the benefit. The second was the danger of being drawn so deeply into the U.S. orbit that Britain would lose its own freedom of action, effectively becoming, as some warned, the 51st state.
Britain therefore modified its strategy from maintaining the balance of power on the Continent to maintaining a balance between the United States and Europe. This allowed it to follow its U.S. strategy while maintaining leverage in that relationship beyond a wholesale willingness to support U.S. policies and wars.
As European unity increased, Britain decided to join the European project in 1973. By the early 1970s, Britain had lost its empire and needed to reassess its international priorities and trade relationships. London saw membership in the European Community as an opportunity to influence the process of continental integration while preserving some degree of autonomy.
This explains its support for the common market but its refusal to join the eurozone. The United States remains Britain’s largest customer for exports if Europe is viewed as individual countries, but Europe as a whole is a bigger customer. Where others in Europe, particularly the Germans and French, opposed the Iraq war, Britain participated in it. At the same time, when the French wanted to intervene in Libya and the Americans were extremely reluctant, the British joined with the French and helped draw in the Americans.
An ‘Open Options’ Policy and a Referendum
Britain has positioned itself superbly for a strategy of waiting, watching and retaining options regardless of what happens. If the European Union fails and the European nation-states re-emerge as primary institutions, Britain’s position would allow it to exploit the fragmentation of Europe to its own economic and political advantage and have the United States available to support its strategy. If the United States stumbles and Europe emerges more prominent, Britain can modulate its relationship with Europe at will and serve as the Europeans’ interface with a weakened United States. If both Europe and the United States weaken, Britain is in a position to chart whatever independent course it must.
The British strategy represents a classic case of a nation accepting reversal, retaining autonomy, and accommodating itself to its environment while manipulating it.
All the while Britain has waited, holding its options open, to see how the game plays out and positioning itself to take maximum advantage of its shifts in the environment.
Now comes the “Brexit” referendum. London has negotiated exemptions from some EU policies in the past, even gaining some concessions from Brussels in the process. But with the June 23 vote, it is trying to become less integrated with the bloc altogether.
Three years ago, when he announced plans for the referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron signalled that he does not want Britain to quit the EU outright; rather, he wants to repatriate from Brussels as many powers as possible. Cameron believes the United Kingdom still needs direct access to Europe’s common market but that London should regain power regarding such issues as employment legislation, immigration and social and judicial affairs.
On the whole, the government in London feels the United Kingdom has surrendered too much of its national sovereignty to supranational EU institutions.
The United Kingdom is a net contributor to the European Union, and London feels that the costs of membership exceed the benefits. The Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidizes agricultural sectors in continental Europe, does not really benefit the United Kingdom, and the Common Fisheries Policy has forced the United Kingdom to share its fishing waters with other EU member states.
Moreover, some sectors of the political establishment are concerned that Britain receives too many immigrants from other EU states.
Yet the United Kingdom is a strong defender of the single market. Roughly half of its exports end up in the European Union, and half of its imports come from the European Union. While the United States is the United Kingdom’s single most important export destination, two of its top five export destinations are eurozone countries: Germany and France. Germany is also the source of about 15 percent of all British imports.
Some supporters of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU suggest that the United Kingdom could leave the European Union but remain a part of the European Economic Area, the trade agreement that includes non-EU members, such as Iceland and Norway. However, the country would still be required to make financial contributions to continental Europe and adapt its legal order to EU standards, but it would not have a vote in EU decisions. Others suggest that the UK should look for a free trade agreement with the EU, but negotiations could take years.
According to Cameron, the United Kingdom must be part of the common market and have a say in policymaking.
Here again, we see Britain’s grand strategy pronounced. Despite its alliance with the United States, the United Kingdom is essentially a European power, and it cannot afford to be excluded from Continental affairs. Throughout history, London’s foremost concern has been the emergence of a single European power that could threaten the British Isles politically, economically or militarily. Maintaining the balance of power in the Continent — especially one in which London has some degree of influence — is a strategic imperative for the United Kingdom. And even if the United Kingdom chooses to move away from mainland Europe, its political and economic influence will continue to be felt in the Continent. > [Brexit and Britain’s Grand Strategy: A Geopolitical Take on the Roots that Led to the Referendum republished by Yerelce with courtesy of Stratfor]
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