The European Union (EU) began in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community consisting of 6 founding members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands). It has grown to the present size of 28 countries with free trade, labor movement and a single currency in a market exceeding 500 million people. Its integration effort also extends to a wide range of other areas including immigration, trade and environmental policies. France and Germany are the two pillars without which the EU cannot survive. They are strangely the victor and vanquished respectively of World War II, and also are logically the two largest economies of continental Europe.
In 1963, Great Britain applied to join the EU (then known as the European Common Market). Its application was vetoed by French President Charles De Gaulle. In hindsight, De Gaulle correctly thought that Britain could only stay as a half-hearted member due to its legacy of a great empire and its special relationships with its former colonies particularly the United State. After the passing of De Gaulle, Britain joined the European Common Market in 1973. More than four decades later in June 2016, Britain decided to leave the EU after a narrow referendum. The actual secession will take place in March 2019 whether or not a deal can be struck with the EU.
Brexit has made Britain a divided nation. More than four decades of EU membership makes it very difficult to disentangle all the laws already put in place, not to mention the economic lives of the citizens and corporations. There has been talk about a parliamentary or popular vote to reverse Brexit. Scotland has voiced its opposition to Brexit, which may lead to another Scottish referendum to leave the United Kingdom. The existing open border between the Irish Republic (EU member) and Northern Ireland (British territory) is another flashpoint due to its importance for keeping the peace in Northern Ireland. The Labor Party now in opposition is waiting to assume power if the divided Conservative Party fails to execute a satisfactory Brexit plan. All of the above represent major political risks, which pale in comparison to surrendering some political sovereignty to Brussels while being an EU member with veto power.
While Britain is divided, the EU countries are surprisingly united in their collective bargaining with Britain over the terms of Brexit. They insist on Britain paying its dues for membership in exchange for all the benefits of a common market in Europe. The EU countries understand that as long as France and Germany form a united front, they can afford to lose Britain with an economy ranking in size second only to Germany’s.
The adverse economic impacts of Brexit will be felt in Britain in the years to come. There have been reports about higher prices of foods and drugs, and also shortages to be expected. The impact on Britain’s large banking sector remains unknown. What will the British banks do about their existing connections with Europe? The Brexiters should think about the loss of EU economic subsidies flowing to their less-developed regions, which their own politicians have never made known to them.
If Britain leaves the EU, can it count on separate trade deals with the rest of the world? Yes if you are a pure optimist. Britain should not count on its special relationship with the United States that seldom brings economic benefits. Theresa May was among the first leaders to pay a visit to Donald Trump who was also for Brexit. What did she get in return? Where is the special trade deal she was hoping for? Bilateral trade deals take years to negotiate and require approval by the legislatures on both sides. Britain must shed all its current entanglements with EU laws and regulations before other non-EU countries want to start the negotiation.
Britain’s special relationship with America stems from the old military alliance during the First and Second World Wars, but things are different now during peace times. The special relationship now only involves voluntary frequent consultations between the top leaders of both countries that seldom result in bilateral trade deals or formal treaties except the sharing of sensitive information and less-than-total support for each other’s policies. Examples: America sided with Britain in the Falkland war in 1982 despite being a member of the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2003, Britain joined the US in the invasion of Iraq in a “coalition of the willing”. However, things may go the other way. During the Suez crisis of 1956, President Eisenhower refused to support Britain and France who joined Israel in the invasion of Egypt, the reason being that America could not facilitate any military design of empire expansion against a third country.
What about Britain’s special relationships with its other former colonies around the world? They were all packaged into the so-called British Commonwealth that has been nearly phased out after 1973 when Britain joined the European Common Market. What remains of the Commonwealth now covers the non-binding and mostly non-economic relations between Britain and its former colonies. The Commonwealth members range from the wealthy (Canada) to the poor (Bangladesh). They possess divergent national interests. By comparison, British national interest is much more convergent with those of the other EU countries.
The British special relationship with the United States is much weaker now except for the English language being shared. Interestingly, we Americans, isolated by two oceans, tend to think of the British as a people who speak with a strange accent and drive on the wrong side of the road. Despite the fact that American society is multi-ethnic, there is no such distinct minority as English or British Americans. On the other hand, it is easy to name several minorities such as Black, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Cuban, Latino, Filipino, Chinese and Vietnamese Americans, who are increasingly able to articulate and influence US policies affecting their cultures and ancestral lands. Regardless of what the British think, the American public has good reasons to believe that Britain belongs to Europe and must work closely with its neighbors of the same league such as France and Germany. After WWII, Great Britain is no longer a superpower. It is no longer an “empire where the sun never sets”.