It’s a confusing time in terms of the Brexit process, as the UK continues to grapple with the complexity of its decision to leave the European Union. While the UK government continues to try and find an exit deal that’s acceptable to enough people, the prospect of a second referendum continues to be floated. Adding to the uncertainty is the decision by the European Court of Justice that the triggering of Article 50 – the mechanism by which the UK formally leaves the EU – could be reversed unilaterally by the UK government. Two years after the divisive referendum, there still appears to be no certainty for anyone about what happens next.
Of course, English tensions with mainland Europe are not a new thing. Probably dating back to the Bell-Beaker people who landed in England around 2500 BC, there has been a constant flow of migration from Europe to England, and regular struggles for control of this small island.
The emergence of the House of Plantagenet – who originated from the lands of Anjou in France – transformed England into a nation state. From the time that Henry II took the throne in 1154, developments such as the Magna Carta, the codification of the judicial system, and the establishment of English as the primary language, all helped to build a distinct sense of national identity for the people ruled by the English crown – an identity that was further consolidated under the rise of the Tudor dynasty, and the evolution of modern Britain.
But the affairs of the powers on the mainland of Europe were always intrinsic to day-to-day life in England. From the famines and plagues of the Middle Ages, to the Hundred Years War, to the Renaissance, and the Age of Discovery – England has never been isolated from European affairs, but rather has always been intrinsically enmeshed within them.
The aftermath of the World Wars of the 20th century inevitably influences the world view of today’s UK voters. It was in 1923 when a Pan-Europa manifesto was first written, and the concept gathered momentum through the League of Nations in the late-20s, with France becoming the first to formally adopt the concept in 1930. In 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech in favour of a United States of Europe – although Churchill didn’t see Great Britain as being part of that grouping.
One of the driving considerations for a more unified Europe was the question of how to avoid wars between nation-states. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the 1948 Hague Congress began to lay the foundations for the European Union as we know it today. In 1957, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany all signed the Treaty of Rome - creating the European Economic Community. The UK joined the EEC in 1973. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty continued the evolution, transforming the EEC into the European Union as it stands today.
Of course the European Union is far from perfect. But to imagine that somehow the UK could exist in isolation from Europe seems contrary to the lessons of the past.
In the Brexit referendum, there were UK electorates where over 70% of voters voted for Leave - parts of Lincolnshire, Essex, Norfolk – huge swathes of the country that haven’t enjoyed the prosperity that the diverse metropolis of London has. Places where day-to-day life isn’t enriched by access to the world’s best. Neglected towns and cities where it’s easy to believe that the reason that your life isn’t particularly fulfilling is somehow because of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who you’ve been told are lining their own pockets and wasting money that is rightfully yours.
The UK’s history is defined by its connection with the peoples of mainland Europe. Undoubtedly, the decision to leave the EU is just another chapter in that continuing narrative . But, as we face into 2019, it’s difficult to know how that narrative is going to unfold in the months ahead.
On current plans, 29 March 2019 is the date that the UK will leave the EU. Regardless of whether or not Britain’s exit from the EU actually happens on that date, it seems clear that the UK is a place where uncertainty will reign for a while, that the UK will be more parochial, more inward-looking, and less welcoming to the rest of the world.