Britain is reconsidering its relationship with the continent. The country has never felt fully comfortable with its membership in an EU that has been conceived, after World War II, as a marriage between Germany and France. With the euro crisis taking centre stage since 2008, this unease has turned into open hostility. And each time German chancellor Angela Merkel talks of “political union”, British nightmares of becoming an entity in a “superstate”, run by an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, seem to become a realistic prospect. Recent polls suggest that about half of Brits would like to leave the EU. But before waving goodbye, the UK should make a honest assessment of what’s at stake. The current British debate over EU membership is mostly about the economics. But the EU’s main value is geopolitical.
In the first half of the 20th century, Europe experienced two devastating wars, started by a rising Germany that had not found its place in a fragile balance of power. In the second half of the century, Europe became a kind of earthly paradise - free, rich, and finally peaceful. Overwhelming American military might was key, as it ended the competition of powers of roughly equal size. But while Nato kept the outer peace, the European unification delivered the inner peace. The EU and its predecessors turned enemies into partners, geopolitical competition into a win-win situation. A British exit would put these achievements at risk. And it would end the hopes of turning the EU into a power that is playing in the world league.
To start with the latter: A British exit would deeply damage to the ambitious project of pooling and sharing capacities and power among European nations. EU foreign and security policy, led by Catherine Ashton, is still in its infancy. But if the UK with all its foreign policy assets would drop out, France and Germany, the other big European powers, would be unlikely to develop enough dynamic to turn the EU into an outward looking, ambitious player on the world scene. Only if London and Paris get together and move Berlin forward will the EU have a chance to act on the same level with the US and China. And only if the Europeans get their act together, can they become a factor in what’s likely to be the key global challenge ahead - to make a rising China a stakeholder in the liberal world order.
Regarding the EU’s second geopolitical function, which is to guarantee the inner peace of Europe, a British exit could start a chain reaction, leading to a decisive weakening of the EU as the political structure binding European states together. Others might, over time, decide to follow. The Scandinavians, the Dutch and many Central and Eastern Europeans feel close to the UK in many regards. If Britain leaves, they might reconsider their relations with the EU as well (especially as an EU without Britain would be a much less liberal place: dominated by French-style statism, permanently fighting real or perceived German hegemony, and endlessly negotiating over subsidies for a weakening South). Today’s EU is successful and attractive precisely because it blends the continent’s main political traditions. Taking British liberalism out of the mix might make the EU indigestible.
In a scenario of disintegration all the EU’s achievements would be at risk. The unique web of daily communication and cooperation that keeps Europe together today, bridging North and South, East and West, centre and periphery, would fade. Leaders and officials would start to think in more narrow, nationalist terms. Mistrust and geopolitical competition would come back. Instead of being guided by a rule-based system, agreed on by all, relations between European states would again be dominated by sheer power. The weak would fear the strong again. And the “German question” - how to reconcile German strength with the legitimate interests of its neighbors in a stable order - would be back on the agenda.
How such a scenario might look like can be seen in the Asia Pacific region, where a rising China is challenging the status quo. Its neighbours - Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines - are scared. Territorial conflict is inciting nationalism, and leaders becoming the hostages of aggressive public opinion. Multilateralism is non-existent or inefficient, and trust is at its lowest level. International politics is seen as a zero-sum game; an arms race is underway.
What Asia Pacific needs to build today is the web of close relations that Europeans have built in the last decades. It would be a foolish to throw this away - and to put Europe’s geopolitical achievements since the end of World War II at risk. A British exit would not just affect Britain, but shatter the very foundations of today’s EU. And the geopolitics of the continent are of highest concern for Britain, as the history of the 20th century has shown.
The dream of full national independence may be noble. But the price would be high: the likely disintegration of the EU as the structure that is organising the cooperation of European states in a mutual beneficial way, and an end to all hopes for Europe’s re-emergence as a global player.
It is impossible for Britain to cut itself off from the continent; even in a global age geography matters. Instead of seeking refugee in escapism, the task for Britain is to take on its responsibility as one of the three leading European powers, and to fight for an EU that is compatible with it’s views, interests and attitudes, and an EU that is serving as an amplifier of British power and is keeping its neighbourhood well-ordered and peaceful. This should be well worth the investment.
Ulrich Speck is a foreign policy analyst based in Heidelberg
Special edition of China Analysis
Essay collection on China's rise and Asia's response.
Chinesische Experten und Intellektuelle analysieren im ECFR-Essayband „China 3.0“ die politischen Trends, die das neue China ausmachen.