During the last year there has been considerable debate over the possibility of Great Britain leaving the European Union. The common complaints are, the EU is a drain on the British economy, British tax payers are bailing out other countries rather than receiving goods and services for their tax dollars, immigration, I am not a European I’m an Englishman, and the list goes on. But there’s more to consider here than short-term economic conditions and British chauvinistic pride. Western Europe along with Great Britain, in or out, hasn’t had these circumstances for five hundred years. Europe is an isolated peninsula that is no longer at the center of global politics.
What’s Old Is New
If you look at medieval Europe you will find more political commonalities with current European circumstances than if you look at twentieth century world politics. Five hundred years ago Western Europe was the European countries bordering the Atlantic. Mediterranean countries were a political unit unto themselves and eastern Europe was Germany and the principalities east of Germany, which were often still forested depending upon how far east you went. European politics were divided differently. The political triangle between Germany, France and England was contested over who might gain control of the unified powers the Roman Empire had established twelve hundred years earlier only in medieval Europe that empire was called the Holy Roman Empire.
What does all that mean for today’s EU and the politics of Western Europe? Well once again the countries on the Atlantic are struggling to find a political balance that makes sense. Mediterranean countries have an economic unity that stems from similar financial woes. And, Eastern Europe is again headed by Germany and a large collection of countries to Germany’s east and South that are less developed and therefore of great interest to Germany as export and import partners. The Holy Roman Empire, now long gone, is replaced by the European Union (EU). Prior to 1500 the world had, on the whole, pressed in on Europe; after 1945 the great European expansion out on the world was over and the world was, in many ways, beginning to press in on Europe once again.
The most notable feature of the Holy Roman Empire was its fragility. Although most aspiring princes, which is to say, large landholders who had gathered together a system to collect taxes and an army, believed in the importance of the Holy Roman Empire. What they believed in was the ability of the Roman Catholic Pope to play politics with granting a Bishopric to their particular territory of landholding and adjacent territories they might influence. So, princes would make political deals with the Pope for his support and in return offer their support for a larger political organization of Europe. In gaining a Bishop the prince was forced to share tax gathering with the church, but gained protection against other local princes. The strongest princes sought the title of Holy Roman Emperor, but it never really lasted, except in name. European unity was a large-scale political game.
The European Union is that same game re-asserted with a new set of rules. Now the game isn’t so much about agriculture as it about industrial power. The strongest princes today are those with the most resources. The world is once again pressing in on Europe in the form of Russian and the United States, which have both outstripped European political and economic might in the last hundred and twenty years. And, of these two large forces, a struggle occurred that tested both of their political and economic strength. The United States won and The Soviet Union as Russia was known, has disintegrated and no longer has the political or economic might that it previously had. A new struggle for identity emerged.
Making A Break From The EU
Today the European countries bordering the Atlantic all have doubts about the viability of the European Union, although they all are willing to believe in the value of unity among European states. Great Britain is currently the most aggressive in questioning the value of continuing participation in the EU. There are many who want out and David Cameron has pledged that by 2015 Britain will withdraw. But, on closer scrutiny, Cameron apparently was using this threat of withdrawal as a political tool to quell concerns among some of his support. Currently the British look at the EU as a dysfunctional federation that needs reform.
The problem of leaving is that Britain would not get the same access to the European market and the European market as a unit has opened doors for all European countries in Asian markets. The things that Britain did for itself in centuries gone by are now being done by the EU and there are good reasons to believe that as an independent trading state Britain would not be as effective. The comparison that makes sense here is with medieval Europe. In Fifteen hundred England had just been chased out of North West France. There was no Great Britain at that time. The unification of the England Whales, Scotland and Ireland was still to come. The British Isles were really four separate countries that fought with each other.
Today the unity of Great Britain is once again being questioned and this time not by Ireland, but instead by Scotland. Among younger Scots the unity of Great Britain is not a foregone conclusion, although older Scots seem to have made their peace with that unity. At this point England is forced to threaten the Scots with financial cut off if they make a break from Great Britain. As George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, said, “The people of the rest of the U.K. (United Kingdom) wouldn’t accept it, and parliament wouldn’t pass it. … If Scotland walks away from the U.K., it walks away from the pound. Having to set up a mint and treasury makes the possibility of Scotland breaking from the U.K. a lot more onerous and unlikely, at least for now.
At the moment there are no immediate changes occurring to Great Britain’s territorial integrity, but there is a substantial amount of discussion and rethinking of established alliances. The source of these considerations are the new realities of Britain in the constellation of a changing Europe. A Europe that looks more and more like a regional political player and less and less like a global political player.