“Fog in the Channel,” headlined the October 22, 1957 Times of London, “Continent cut off.”
This famous-but-perhaps-apocryphal bit of journalism is particularly apropos of the dank “Brexit” shroud that has settled over northwest Europe. With 100 days to go until the supposed March 29 deadline for Great Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the fog is only getting thicker. No proposed solution seems palatable to all parties, Prime Minister Theresa May has a tenuous hold on power and no grip whatsoever on policy, and the continentals are blithely but foolishly relishing Britain’s distress.
For if there is ever a “lesson” to be learned from history, it is that continental European powers are unable to order their own affairs. Being a “great” European power has meant being just powerful enough to make trouble—hugely bloody trouble—but never powerful enough to make a satisfactory peace. For five centuries, Spain, France, Germany, and Russia have bid for continental mastery and failed, despite multiple efforts. Absent Anglo-American intervention, the natural European condition is a squabble of all against all.
Every century or so, Britain seems to need to redefine and recodify its relations to its eastern neighbors, hoping that they might better behave themselves. The 1604 Treaty of London was supposed to settle things with Habsburg Spain, but was viewed as a strategic time-out by Philip III to prepare for the final Counterreformation struggle, the Thirty Years’ War. The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht reflected Louis XIV’s admission that he “loved war too much,” but it was a message lost on his son, who managed to lose a global empire to Great Britain in 1763. After Napoleon, the treaty-making moved to Vienna in 1815, and the resulting “Concert of Europe” was at least a framework for great-power peace—until the unification of Germany. Things went no better at Versailles in 1919.
As Cambridge University historian Brendan Simms observes, continental Europeans cannot seem to cook their porridge to the right temperature, establishing both a powerful and democratic union able to “look after itself without endangering its neighbors and both embed and mobilize Germany for the common good.” The EU is proving itself deficient—and thus potentially dangerous—on both scores: it is militarily weak but bureaucratically tyrannical, it has a “strength deficit” and a “democracy deficit.”
Brexit is, if nothing else, a common-sense reaction to Europe’s inability to create both a decent and durable order for itself. It is also a sub-rosa recognition of the realities of power. To be sure, the British military isn’t what it used to be; Nelson’s line of ships at the 1798 Battle of the Nile was about the same size—and had more first-rate warships—as the entire Royal Navy is today. But continental European militaries are in much worse shape, as their quisling responses to Vladimir Putin’s provocations suggest. Most of all, Britain remains the United States’ principal NATO partner, retaining an influence that no continental ally—individually or even collectively—can command.
It’s impossible to know what will materialize when the Channel fog clears. But if the net result is a weakening of strategic ties between the continent and the Anglophone powers which guarantee the European order, it will be the Euros who are the biggest losers. Their failure to adopt the Anglo model of union both diminishes European liberties—especially for the weakest states—but threatens the security of the largest states, Germany and France. A continent cut off is a continent at risk.