The nation state is back, and borders are now very much part of the political debate. In America, Donald Trump’s most famous policy was undoubtedly the building of a wall on the southern border with Mexico. In Europe, Angela Merkel’s poor performance in the German general election was partly explained by her perceived eagerness to throw open Germany’s borders to a million migrants from Syria. The AfD (Alternative for Deutschland), an anti-immigration party, achieved a remarkable result in the election. They now have 94 out of 598 seats in the Bundestag, and are Germany’s third largest party.
Across the Western world, borders are back in fashion. Nothing demonstrates statehood better than a strong border. Even children understand what lines on a map signify.
Across the Western world, borders are back in fashion. Nothing demonstrates statehood better than a strong border. Even children understand what lines on a map signify. This solid grasp of national boundaries lies at the heart of the EU’s dilemma. Everybody knows that, for the godfathers of the EU, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, full European integration was the ideal. This, let’s make no bones about it, was a United States of Europe. That was the plan.
The single currency itself was a precursor to a superstate. As Jacques Rueff, the French politician and monetary expert, asserted as early as 1950: “Europe will make itself by money, or not at all”.
Britain’s decision not to join the euro project was a necessary precondition for Brexit. Europhiles as candid as Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, and Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, have never hidden their desire to create a single state of Europe based on a single currency. In his State of the Union speech in the European Parliament last September, Mr Juncker confirmed that “the euro is destined to be the currency of the entire Union”, while at his party’s conference in Berlin in December 2017 Schulz called on EU states to commit to a “United States of Europe” by 2025.
Today, the talk is of a single army for the EU. Tomorrow, the idea of a President for the whole European Union, with his or her directly elected mandate, will no doubt be proposed again. It was always thought that Tony Blair’s ultimate ambitions lay in this direction. He reportedly craved the post of first President of Europe.
But history has a funny way of biting people on the backside. Just at the moment when Europe seemed to be heading towards greater integration, the financial crisis struck. The Greek sovereign debt crisis severely damaged the reputation of the single currency, because everyone knew that Greece’s inclusion in the project was the result of political horse-trading, and made no economic sense.
The British people always rejected the single currency. Even Blair in his pomp shied away from a referendum to join it. This stubborn reluctance to join the euro project marked Britain out, while all the major economies of Europe – Germany, France, Spain, Italy – surrendered their national currencies and adopted the single currency with hardly a murmur of protest.
The British reluctance to join the euro was arguably a forewarning of Brexit. It indicated that Britain had a different set of national priorities than those countries which had jettisoned their national currencies with such abandon.
Europhiles as candid as Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, and Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, have never hidden their desire to create a single state of Europe based on a single currency.
Whatever the cause, it is widely acknowledged that the Britons have a slightly different sense of what it is to be a nation. The Germans have been known to call the British “Inselaffen” – island apes – a label which, if widely known in Britain, is likely to be worn as a badge of pride, just as the British Expeditionary Forces at the beginning of the First World War called themselves the Old Contemptibles, after Kaiser Wilhelm dismissed Sir John French’s “contemptible little army”.
The history of the British state, coupled with that of the British Empire and the Commonwealth, has not only given Britain a different type of national identity. It also established trading lines across the world which radically differed from those on the Continent. Nobody understood this better than the great French statesman, Charles de Gaulle.
In 1963, de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s membership of the fledgling EEC, saying: “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries... She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions. In short, the nature, the structure, the very situation that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals.”
General de Gaulle saw in 1963 more clearly than many people today. The idea that Britain had to stay in the EU because our trade was dependent on Europe was, of course, a circular argument. After 50 years in the EU, it was no surprise that a lot of British trade was centered in the EU. That, after all, was the point. There is no doubt that after Brexit, trade will be slightly different. It is highly likely to revert to the pattern described by General de Gaulle in 1963.
The history of the British state, coupled with that of the British Empire and the Commonwealth, has not only given Britain a different type of national identity. It also established trading lines across the world which radically differed from those on the Continent.
Brexit could be termed de Gaulle’s revenge. A prescient statesman, steeped in history and literature, the General understood Britain’s historic character. In contrast, domestic politicians like Edward Heath and other champions of the European cause in Britain itself had no real grasp or feel for British history. They were bureaucratic managers and technocrats, who perhaps feared democracy.
As we embark on Brexit, and survey the political scene across the world, we can be sure that the concept of the nation state is a living idea which will not die soon. Many ardent EU enthusiasts simply cannot understand that, for millions of British people, national sovereignty is a real and dynamic concept. The nation state has traditionally been defined as a political entity which is independent, and has the ability to set its own laws and define its political institutions. Brexit, in all its complexity and suddenness, was a striking manifestation of a national spirit.