After gradually dealing with a French “question” – the temptation of Napolenian hegemony – followed by a German “question” – the two World Wars seen as a Teutonic tendency to dominate the continent, it now seems that old Europe is being confronted with a “British question” that is not linked to continental domination, but is of an entirely different nature, one that we will try to sum up in this article.
Within the last two years, the case of this “British question” has practically defined itself as a European matter, the manifestations of which are frequently visible. Historically speaking, Great Britain was a great power with global interests, an Empire where the sun never set (19th century). As we all know, the last World War sanctioned the emergence of “Pax Americana” and favoured the slow decline of former colonial empires. In 1956, during the “Suez crisis”, we witnessed London’s last attempt at maintaining its global status, the failure of which set in motion the so-called “retreat from East of Suez”.
If Great Britain had up to that moment been in a state of “splendid isolation” from the continent it belonged to geographically and historically, while also being careful enough not to allow Europe to be dominated by another great power, its relationship with Europe (what the European Union is today) ever since has become a primordial political goal reached at the start of the 1970s. This very characteristic of traditional British “splendid isolation” has made some European leaders take a stand against England’s accession to the EU, such as French man De Gaulle, whose continental concepts had been outdated by large systemic changes.
In December 2011, this trend of being in sync with Europe, which had been predominant in Great Britain, was suddenly replaced with another already existing trend that gained momentum, namely the gradual separation from the EU. The aforementioned movement, generically named “Euroscepticism”, refers to the strive to preserve its global status and assert a “special connection” with the United States within a transatlantic community being eaten away at by opposing European views (see NATO issue and the increased irrelevance of the alliance due to a prevailing soft power approach at EU level). In December 2011, therefore, under the influence of Eurosceptics within his own party, as well as potential electoral risks posed by a new political party that was hostile to the EU (UKIP), British Prime Minister D. Cameron decided at the European Council of 9 December 2011 not to take part in the agreement on national budgets. This move unravelled a series of events that added to the “British question” file and raised serious issues in the EU. Next came the decision to plan an “in or out” of the EU national referendum in 2017, which meant London’s withdrawal and subsequent divorce from Europe. It should be noted that the file is that much more complicated if we take into account the current conservative government’s decision to hold a referendum in Scotland in 2014on Scotland’s independence, thus making it possible (though not probable) for two states to emerge in Albion. Great Britain’s observable trend is not solely Euroscepticism and “severing its ties” with Europe, but also fragmentation. Within this context, the “British question” is not so much “British” as it is “European” and the great continental powers (the last of which was Italy through Prime Minister Letta) had positioned themselves in such a manner as to find a solution in favour of EU unity.
The most recent addition to this case is also the most dramatic, as it reveals a so far unsuspected side of the “British question”. It has been said that Great Britain’s moving-away-from Europe dynamic after 2011 – references have been made to London’s rejection of a German continental hegemony that, so far, has manifested itself financially – is accompanied by strengthening “the special connection” with the U.S., a somewhat utopic projection on Great Britain’s part that it might preserve its global status through the “Anglosphere”. Last week’s incident casts serious doubts over this alleged “USA first” approach and leaves the door open for speculations on Great Britain’s international isolation and the voluntary retreat of a once great world power.
Last Thursday, on 29 August, the British Parliament rejected the government’s request to approve Great Britain’s participation in a military action against the Assad regime in Syria with a close vote (17 votes’ difference). The motivation behind such a military action – that will probably be carried out by the U.S.A. as part of a “coalition of the willing” in which the UK will not be included – is the Assad’s use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, while violating international laws and questioning the United States and the Western world’s credibility. According to the unanimous opinion of the British press, the sovereign Parliament has expressed the will of the majority of British citizens, and Prime Minister D. Cameron has stated he would follow this decision. It is the first time when Great Britain does not support a military action proposed by Washington and it will impact both this very issue – undoubtedly influenced by the British Parliament’s gesture, President Obama has already announced he would submit the participation in a military intervention in Syria to the approval of the Congress, although he has the legal right to set the action in motion without such a procedure – and especially the centuries-old special connection between the two countries.
Articles and comments published in the British press are already referring to another trend that could be acting within the British public opinion and the political elite – isolationism. On the one hand, there are some comments that focus on the end of the British “Empire” as sanctioned by George W. Bush and Tony Blair through the action in Iraq, and on the other, it is being stated that England has already lost its “global” status and its foreign policy has become non-functional almost overnight. The close following of these comments could uncover a series of interesting tendencies of the British public opinion, from globalist interventionists to pacifist internationalists or isolationists of the older of more recent variety (particularly reluctant to any British intervention in the Middle East). One official made a sad and anonymous statement, saying that British embassies the world over could easily be turned into “showrooms”. Of course, if you follow the blogs, you will see without a tinge of surprise how deeply the 2003 Iraq war has influenced British mentality through Tony Blair’s decision to commit to this war and the material and moral sacrifices caused by this decade-long conflict. Apparently, the majority of the British population want to avoid another war incident and the Parliament has given Prime Minister Cameron an official sanction that he intends to comply with.
I have two closing remarks, the first of which is concerned with the “British question” seen as impacting the entire Europe. Europe evidently needs Great Britain and vice-versa. An isolationist Great Britain is inconceivable, based on historical grounds and future expectations. Europe must find the path to reconstructing a mutually beneficial interdependency that would successfully launch Great Britain in the competition of this century’s greatest world powers. My second remark refers to the noticeable increasing gap between the political elite’s approach to foreign policies and the public opinion’s approach. The Internet has provided the public opinion with unprecedented access to information and ways of self-expression. These opportunities will hopefully not widen the gap between members of the public opinion and the elite, which that has been invested with ruling power in matter of public affairs, especially in the sensitive area of foreign policy where every decision must be based on the know-how gather from both open and confidential sources.