war on the rocks

The Fate of Britain: Offshore Balancing and the Brexit

April 28, 2016

Editor’s note: This article is based on evidence originally submitted to the U.K. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s Inquiry into the Costs and Benefits of EU Membership for Britain’s World Role, available here.


For nearly half a millennium, since the Siege of Calais put an end to English territorial holdings in modern France, England — and latterly the United Kingdom — has sought to act as an “offshore balancer” in Europe. While deriving its peacetime power and prosperity from global commerce, sea control, now-residual maritime empire, and numerous domestic innovations, Britain has nonetheless gone ashore via major continental commitments of ground troops whenever another great power posed a risk of dominating the whole of western Europe. This is because a single state that achieved such European hegemony would have the relative power to dictate political and economic terms to the United Kingdom. Such a situation might even threaten the survival of Britain’s political sovereignty and population — 21-mile moat notwithstanding — as well as its economic prosperity. This geopolitical constant explains the provision of money, arms, and personnel to balance with weaker continental allies against Hapsburg Spain, Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, Imperial and Nazi Germany, and most recently the Soviet Union.

Discussions of balancing have been unfashionable and often unnecessary since the dawn of the unipolar moment in the 1990s, given the focus on various “new” and “asymmetric” security threats — most notably terrorism — under the shadow of U.S. preponderance. Yet in the context of longstanding British interest in offshore balancing, such considerations are highly relevant to the ongoing debate about the possibility of British exit (“Brexit”) from the European Union following the upcoming June referendum. This is because British withdrawal from the European Union may undermine the fundamental U.K. goal of preventing the domination of western Europe by any one great power.

Federalizing forces

The European Union faces strong federalizing drivers. The underlying pressures of monetary union, manifested as the muted-but-not-resolved Eurozone crisis, drive Europe toward fiscal and associated political union for such a currency area to become workable (as plenty of economists warned prior to the euro’s introduction). Numerous other policy challenges push in the direction of closer European integration: the migrant crisis, counter-terrorism, energy supply, democratic deficiencies, and so forth. The principal barrier to such federalization as some sort of “United States of Europe” remains British membership in the European Union, its scope to shape the bloc’s future development, and its ability to veto undesired changes, if necessary. Whenever a British prime minister leaves an EU summit with the opprobrium of integration-minded counterparts and European Commission officials ringing in his or her ears, this is evidence of federalization thwarted.

Post-Brexit, this British obstacle to European federalization would no longer be in place. This is not to suggest that such federalization would go unopposed by other remaining member states, even after a British withdrawal. Only eight percent of Europeans put their European identity ahead of national identity, suggesting that “ever-closer union” is hardly a beloved cause outside certain elites. And neither is it to suggest that Germany and France, the two other principal veto-players in E.U. politics, would necessarily promote or align on the issue. If Berlin and Paris did agree on the necessity of some form of federalization, however — as structural pressures will increasingly incentivize — no other member wields Britain’s ability to oppose such a policy or lead the bloc in alternative directions.

The implication is that, after nearly 500 years of seeking to prevent a single great power from controlling the whole of western Europe, British withdrawal from the European Union could pave the way for precisely that outcome. As in the current E.U. situation, Germany would likely be the principal influencer in a post-Brexit federal entity, but Berlin would enjoy greater scope to determine genuinely cohesive pan-European external policy. Even without current British contributions, if such a super-state came into existence tomorrow, it would have a GDP of around $15 trillion, a population of 440 million, and 1.7 million (admittedly ill-coordinated) troops — plus a nuclear arsenal. None of this is to suggest that this “United States of Europe” — whatever its characteristics — would necessarily emerge as a military threat to Britain (although the disparities of power could well become uncomfortable, and worse would be possible, albeit improbable, over the long term). Yet, either way, a federal European super-state would be in a position to dictate terms to London — British economic size, financial pre-eminence, scientific leadership, cultural appeal, and military prowess notwithstanding — across a whole range of political and economic issues. This situation would hold not just during the post-Brexit “break-up” negotiations, as others have observed, but also over the longer term. The fact that European exporters would have strong incentives to seek a trade deal with Britain following a “leave” vote does not diminish the retort that the United Kingdom would become a mere recipient of rules set elsewhere: outside the tent, being micturated on. To observe this relative power imbalance is not to “talk Britain down”; it is simple realism.

The Canadian experience of living next door to a superpower is instructive here. Canada enjoys many benefits from its relationship with the United States and does not experience overt U.S. political interference in its domestic affairs on a daily basis. But on issues that the United States regards as vital national interests, Canada has little choice but to align its policy with U.S. preferences and, when they are made, demands.

Realism, not rejoicing

Nothing written here is intended as a warm endorsement of the European status quo. It reflects realpolitik, not starry-eyed Euro-idealism. Few Britons have ever had the affection for the “European Project” that many do elsewhere in the bloc — despite having plenty of affection for Europe and Europeans — having been neither conquered nor conquerors in the continental wars of the last century, instead viewing the benefits of membership in predominantly transactional terms. The European Union’s democratic deficit is undeniable, despite the efforts of some to reason it away, and the sense that its elites will not let anything as inconvenient as voters get in the way of their integrationist vision is pervasive. The Union’s financial profligacy is frequently disconnected from reality, as in the case of its 2010-11 budget growth demands during severe fiscal consolidation in member-states, although it has also delivered welcome investment to deprived regions and valuable scientific support. While membership in the E.U. has boosted the overall volume of British trade and provided unfettered access to the world’s largest single market, it has also had some undesirable distortionary effects. Access to the single market has similarly made Britain an additionally desirable investment destination — hence much of the current fear over Brexit-induced capital flight — but Brussels-issued regulation can also be a deterrent to investors. And its supra-national regulation and legal system undoubtedly intrudes into the legislative domain of the U.K.’s sovereign democratic Parliament, as former defense secretary Liam Fox has argued vociferously. The fact that the regulatory regime was opted into does not diminish this critique.

Turning to E.U. labor movement, it is easy to sneer at those opposed to unchecked European immigration as xenophobic “Little Englanders” when one has the educational privilege to work in a sector where such immigration has not held down real wages. Recognizing that such immigration also makes a crucial contribution to high-skill sectors, gives Britons opportunities abroad, and boosts total national output does not undermine this critique, it simply demonstrates that international flows of capital and labor effect different people in different ways. Membership has certainly provided significant external bargaining power, meanwhile. But it is laughable to argue that the European Union should take primary credit for maintaining major power peace in Europe since 1945 and mollifying Franco-German relations in the process, rather than those accolades going to NATO, American power, and various nuclear arsenals. And while he should have shirked the dog-whistle undertones, Boris Johnson is right to point out that most Americans would be aghast at such a surrender of control to a supra-national entity, perhaps featuring a completely open border with Mexico and a Supreme Court sitting in Toronto.

There are valid cases both “for” and “against”, in short — not to mention the attendant emotion and rhetoric — and this article neither hopes nor seeks to settle the Brexit debate. The sky will probably not fall either way, and the bloc has both noble qualities and indefensible flaws. The key point, however, is that few things would make eventual European federalization as some sort of “United States of Europe” more likely than Britain taking itself out of the way. Some have suggested that this would be a welcome outcome, finally fulfilling a Churchillian vision of a tripolar West, in which Britain works with Europe but is not of Europe. Yet this sanguine view underestimates the resulting superpower’s potential for future coercive behavior toward a much relatively weaker United Kingdom — coercion that Britons have more reason than not to eventually expect.

Possible alternatives?

Of course, the scenario painted here is only one possible outcome. British withdrawal could be the catalyst for the European Union’s eventual unraveling, thereby delivering the optimal outcome for the bloc’s critics. Alternatively, such federalization could conceivably occur even despite British opposition as a continuing member, possibly within the Eurozone alone, since Britain has not secured a right of veto over further integration between members of the currency union. Neither alternative is as likely, however. Continental elites are more committed to the bloc’s survival than their British counterparts, and would go to greater lengths to avoid follow-on referenda with the “wrong” outcome. And while the Eurozone could indeed agree to further fiscal integration, it cannot adopt a single European foreign/defense policy — a key criterion for statehood — without the consent of non-Eurozone members.

Most likely of all, of course, is further muddling through, with integrationist pressures and elites moving in stops and starts vis-à-vis nationally oriented and sovereigntist publics, with or without Britain. Nonetheless, the risk of a British withdrawal clearing the way for full European federalization is real. For Britons to find themselves in a decade or two living next door to a super-state that tells them how high to jump would represent a supremely ironic outcome for those who see Brexit as offering more sovereignty, rather than less. The imposition of continental diktat by a Europe-spanning foreign power is the very outcome that Britain has shed most blood and treasure trying to avoid over the past five centuries. It would also be a further ironic twist to risk destroying the United Kingdom by doing something intended to enhance its independence. Perhaps the solution, then, is for Britain to simply get better at ignoring EU rules that go against its interests — as other member-states do when it suits them — all while remaining a member of the bloc to prevent a usable-albeit-flawed supranational organization from turning into an all-too-efficient superpower.


Dr. David Blagden is a University Lecturer (Assistant Professor) with the Strategy and Security Institute of the University of Exeter. He was previously the Adrian Research Fellow in International Politics at Darwin College, University of Cambridge, where he remains a visiting Research Fellow. He has published in International Security, International Affairs, International Studies Review, and the RUSI Journal, among other outlets. He is also an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, but stresses that this is work completed in his civilian academic capacity. It does not reflect the official views of — and has not received input from — the Royal Navy or the U.K. Ministry of Defence. He tweets @blagden_david.


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