YPFP at EurActiv

The United Kingdom’s departure from today’s European order has tragic historical precedence. A European Union committed to its long-term survival should not be so eager to push the Brits out.

Increasingly, the United Kingdom seems headed for a ‘hard’ Brexit – that is, a full departure from the European Union, including the customs union and single market. A year and a half since the country triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon and negotiations began, the United Kingdom and European Union have yet to resolve any major disputes, let alone settle on a final deal. Meanwhile, a bitterly divided British parliament seems unlikely to approve whatever deal might emerge. Barring some breakthrough before next March, the United Kingdom will crash out of the EU, with no clear legal framework for cross-border trade, customs, financial flows, or immigration.


On the surface, Brexit seems a historical accident. While the threat of a global trade war looms and security pressures are mounting, the United Kingdom has elected to unmoor itself from the European trading and security systems and self-inflict severe economic pain. But Brexit also has clear historical precedent. Viewed with an eye to the past, Britain has a habit of turning away from the European order du jour whenever the system comes under strain, both anticipating and hastening the order’s eventual dissolution. Tellingly, this habit tends to resurface whenever global fault lines are shifting and Germany’s power has begun to overwhelm the continent.


Take the Westphalian system. For more than a century between the end of the Hundred Years War in 1648 and the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756, Europe operated under an understanding of the need to preserve a balance of power between states, inscribed implicitly in the Peace of Westphalia and explicitly in the Peace of Utrecht. Although this order pales in comparison to today’s European Union with respect to the level of European cooperation, the Westphalian system nonetheless provided a period of relative stability in Europe. But the order began to show signs of strain a couple of decades into the 18th century, with two telltale signs. First, Prussia began to emerge not only as the preeminent power in the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, but as a major European power – a problem that was awkward for the existing balance to accommodate. Second, Britain’s eyes began to wander away from its commitment to serving as a counterweight to other European powers and toward the frontiers of the New World, particularly in North America. The result was what some historians have deemed “World War Zero” – a war of global proportions, which not only laid waste to the old order, but ushered in a period of several decades of nearly non-stop war and revolution until Europe managed to settle on a new state of affairs.


That new order was the Concert of Europe. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Europe’s major powers gathered in Vienna and agreed, in 1815, on a set of principles that would define European relations for the next several decades. In addition to re-settling on the importance of maintaining a balance of power, the Concert of Europe emphasized the primacy of the continent’s old, cosmopolitan monarchies over the nationalist-populist forces of the day. For decades following the first Congress, European squabbles played out mainly over assemblies rather than war. But by the latter half of the 19th century, the system was exhibiting some wear and tear. Germany had unified under one national banner, while Austria-Hungary’s power was on the wane; a major shift was underfoot which the old system seemed incapable of handling. Both an indication of a fading system and a contributing factor was Britain’s increased commitment to colonial matters and decreased interest in Europe, a policy deemed “splendid isolation.” Europe didn’t manage to emerge from that tunnel until 1945.


Because today’s EU is Europe’s most ambitious supranational system since the Roman Empire, most observers consider it more akin to an integrated economic zone or an emerging federal system than to the continent’s historical “orders.” But this confidence ignores the fact that the EU was also conceived as a balance of power arrangement, primarily designed to contain Germany. Under a security umbrella supplied by the United States, Europe tied West German industry to the economies of France and the other founding members – an arrangement that Germany’s leaders welcomed in an effort to prevent the encirclement that nearly led to its destruction last time. Key to that goal was getting the Brits into the system as a counterbalance to the various interests on the continent – an objective that Konrad Adenauer and other West German leaders considered essential to both Germany’s future and the project of European peace.


Today, that order is again under strain. Nationalist-populist forces have resurfaced to challenge the continent’s status quo superstructure. The American security presence that facilitated the development of common European interests is quickly fading. A reunified Germany has reemerged as Europe’s preeminent power: flexing its economic and fiscal muscles, Germany appears increasingly unwilling to subjugate its own interests for the sake of European harmony. Meanwhile, a United Kingdom chafing against the constraints of its European commitments and wondering whether it could do better in the long run under some other arrangement is once again attempting to wander elsewhere.


To be sure, Germany’s ascendance and Britain’s departure look different in the 21st century. In a post-colonial world where power is founded more ostensibly on economic linkages than military heft, Germany will hesitate to rearm and Britain will struggle to find new economic outlets. But this insulation from the threat of European dissolution does not entirely free Europe from the weight of its historical proclivities. Worse, it may make a breakdown in the European order harder to anticipate and avert.


The United Kingdom’s full departure from the European Union increasingly looks inevitable. But that fact has some European leaders giddy over the prospect of increased European unity and intent on imposing maximum punishment on the United Kingdom. They should not be so unwise.



Elizabeth Rust is a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She serves as an economic consultant with Keybridge LLC, advising industry associations and corporate strategy clients on global macroeconomic and political trends, with a focus on advanced economies. Rust holds a Master’s degree in international economics and European studies from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) and a Bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, from Cornell University.

Photo Caption: German and EU flags fly outside the German Reichstag (Márcio Cabral de Moura via Flickr)



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