At the English Channel’s narrowest point, just over eighteen nautical miles separate Shakespeare Beach in Kent from Cap Gris Nez, and on a clear day you can stand on the British shoreline, peer across the waves and make out the French coastline. Yet the reality is that we are in many ways a country far apart from our continental cousins, with this small stretch of sea representing more than a mere geographical separation. There is a psychological distance, a belief that the British Isles are a long way removed from the many nations with which we share the European hemisphere. We are an island nation, with an island outlook on the world.
Yet just at the point that Brexit appears to make us more of an island than ever, it could paradoxically lead to changes in the EU that will offer us a way back in.
Our history weighs heavily, subconsciously perhaps, on how we feel about our place in the world. For more than a thousand years Britain has often viewed the rest of Europe with a mixture of affection, fear and suspicion. Frequently it has been the home of our enemy, with these islands fighting long wars with France, Spain, Tsarist Russia and Germany. A long roll-call of battles is etched permanently into our national historical memory: Agincourt, Blenheim, Waterloo, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain. This focus on our military past reinforces the feeling of British exceptionalism. Since 1066, no foreign force has successfully managed to cross the Channel and launch a full-scale invasion and conquest of these isles. No other nation on the continent can say the same.
This awareness of our history, and the peculiar mix of superiority and separateness that it has spawned, played a vital role in Britain’s decision to stay out of the earliest attempts at European integration – and if we want to understand Brexit today, we need to acknowledge the distinct circumstances in which we joined the European club in the first place. There was little fanfare when we finally made the leap. ‘We’re In – but Without Fireworks,’ declared The Guardian, as Britain formally joined the European Economic Community (EEC) on 1st January 1973. In fact there was barely a sparkler to be seen. Basic economic necessity, rather than ideology, hope or inspiration, lay behind Britain’s decision to end the country’s splendid isolation.
But while we may not be entirely comfortable inside the EU, and may see ourselves as a nation apart, we have, repeatedly, shaped its priorities and direction. Time and again, Britain’s unsettled relationship with Europe has prompted us to seek a series of special deals. And guess what? Time and again, Britain has succeeded in carving out a special status for itself. Did we join the eurozone? Are we part of the border-free Schengen Area? Did we sign up to all 130 of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs laws? No. No. No. Margaret Thatcher would have liked the sound of that.
Within the intricate stitching that binds the EU, there is a common thread that runs throughout: Britain’s unique status. Far from being the inflexible homogenous monolith of Daily Mail caricature, the European Union has repeatedly shown that it is willing to listen, prepared to compromise and ready to reform. So when people like me insist that Britain can still act to further reform the EU, and help mould it in a manner that best suits this country’s very specific needs, we are not in the throes of some ‘remoaning’ Europhile fever. We are simply stating the obvious. Britain has enjoyed a special status throughout our time as a member of the EU and, should we choose to, we could do so once again. It would be a logical continuation of what we have previously achieved on so many occasions.
Crucially, this task – of reuniting the UK with the EU, but on an altered and reformed basis – will be made all the more possible because the rest of the EU is beginning to redesign its entire structure itself. Indeed, after recent events, it has no other choice. Europe’s leaders, especially in the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s election as French president, are increasingly persuaded that extensive reform of the EU is now inescapable.
The Brexit vote was a major catalyst in pushing EU governments to accept that change can no longer be avoided. In an ironic twist of fate, the Brexit vote in Britain against a future in the EU may help to provoke precisely the reforms that will assist in securing the EU’s own future.
So there is a silver lining to the Brexit referendum: it may help to strengthen the EU itself; and it may lead to the conditions in which the UK could be reintegrated into a reformed EU.
This blog is based on excerpts from How to Stop Brexit by Nick Clegg, published Thursday 12 October by Bodley Head and available here