Why don't the British feel European?

Brexit interview"The UK gives the British exactly what they need"

Brendan Simms is an Irish historian and professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge University. He has published numerous books, and on March 25th his new work “The British and Europe. A thousand years of conflict and cooperation ”.


CAPITAL: Mr. Simms, your new book “The British and Europe. A thousand years of conflict and cooperation ”. What are your central theses in it?

BRENDAN SIMMS: The book is basically about two subjects. One is how the UK was shaped as a state through its involvement in the European system. The creation of the United Kingdom in 1707, for example, was a response to external pressure that has drawn the nations of the British Isles closer together. On the other hand - and this topic is even more important - it is about the fact that the United Kingdom has always been a regulating power in Europe and has shaped European history much more than it was shaped by Europe itself.

What are the highlights of centuries of British-European coexistence?

Of course, this question can only be answered subjectively. An obvious climax was the United Kingdom's intervention in World War II: this was instrumental in preventing Hitler's victory and manifesting his defeat. Another high point was the Napoleonic Revolution, when the United Kingdom also helped restore European equilibrium. This pattern - that England or the United Kingdom played a crucial role in European history - can be observed over several hundred years.

Is Brexit now a historic low?

I think it's too early to say. We don't yet know where Brexit is going. Some believe it is a new high point and the beginning of a new era and some see it as the deterioration and slippage of the UK into insignificance.

"Brexit is a moment of extreme crisis"

Brendan Simms

Do you think Brexit could actually mark the end of the British-European partnership?

Brexit is definitely a moment of extreme crisis between the UK and Europe. For me that leads to two questions. First, will the UK or the European Union determine the UK's political power now or after the transition? It's still unclear. If we assume that the United Kingdom itself determines this political power, then the next question would be how the United Kingdom will exercise its regulatory power within the European Union after Brexit.

What are the options?

If it were up to the EU, the UK would no longer play a political role in the rest of Europe. Historically, that has never been the case. That doesn't mean that it can't, because of course things change. But historically the UK has always had that political role. And it has played that role in the European Union for the past 40 years as well. So the question is what happens when the UK leaves the European Union: does it just become insignificant and uninvolved, or is it negotiated to give it a new role in the European Union, or is it even demanding it from Europe?

As continental Europeans, you sometimes get the impression that we feel more connected to the British than the other way around. Why is that?

I believe there are historical reasons for this phenomenon. Over the centuries there have been more and more states and historical experiences in Europe, with this improving from east to west and vice versa. On the whole, the history of Europe is shaped by catastrophes and trauma, state failure and foreign determination. The creation of the European Union was the answer. The UK faced similar challenges, but different answers. Namely, that the UK is precisely the system that is the basis for the present, the future and security.

"The British don't necessarily see the need for another multinational union"

Brendan Simms

What does that mean exactly?

That means that Europeans actually need Europe and think the British do too. However, many Britons find that the UK gives you exactly what they need. I think that is difficult for the Europeans on the mainland to understand, after all they allow the UK to play an exceptional role. And not in the sense that everything is unique and extraordinary. Rather, in the sense of accepting that national history is fundamentally different.

You have to explain that in a little more detail.

I would argue that the whole Brexit debate is not at all about UK nationalism versus European Union supranationalism. Because consider: the United Kingdom is an amalgamation of four states. So there has actually been no English nation-state in this sense since 1707. So although on the surface it seems as if the multinational European Union is currently fighting the British nation-state, it is actually fighting an association of nations. So the British don't necessarily see the need for another multinational union - they already have one.