On May 7, 2019, the Center for International Security and Governance (CISG) hosted a lecture on Brexit with Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, and a subsequent panel discussion with Prof. Dr. Andreas Rödder, Professor for Recent History at the University of Mainz, moderated by Dr. Anna Sauerbrey from the Tagesspiegel.
The lecture’s key theme, Professor Simms stated right in the beginning of his lecture, was not as much a lecture about the rights and wrongs of Brexit but rather an “exercise in big history”. His goal, Simms said, was to provide a greater context to understand the underlying dynamics that shape Britain’s separation process from the European Union.
Prof. Simms based his analysis on the premise that the United Kingdom always has been and most likely will remain a special case within the European state system. Quoting Winston Churchill’s dictum that “Europe is where the weather comes from”, Simms painted a picture of a Britain that has always seen the main continent as providing the larger context for British foreign policy and caused the United Kingdom to repeatedly advance far into mainland Europe. British defense and security, Simms stated, have always been tied in with that of Europe.
As a result, Britain’s defense of its territory, British parliamentarism, democracy and Protestantism has traditionally extended to a defense of those same elements in mainland Europe. Ranging from the defense of Protestantism in Germany and the Netherlands to the fight against Nazi Germany and communism in the 20th century, this has evolved into a long-term larger involvement in the European balance of power over the last centuries.
Britain’s dilemma, Simms argued further, has always been to keep Europe ordered and coherent enough to act as a counterweight to external threats while prohibiting the rise of a hegemonic presence that might threaten the UK. According to Simms, the UK, alongside the United States, “has always been one of the great shapers” of order, and has been firmly rooted in the concepts of national British sovereignty and auto-determination which play a key role in understanding the Kingdom’s attitude towards the European Union.
In view of this historic background, Simms stated that Britain subordinating itself to become an “ordered” instead of an “orderer” would be a “huge breach with 200 years of history”. During the subsequent discussion, this notion was challenged by Andreas Rödder who argued that such a dichotomy of “orderer and ordered” in a time of shared sovereignty falls short of describing political realities. The point was also made, however, that beyond mere political majorities and power relations, it is the perception of being the ordered that is a key in populism and Brexiteer rhetoric.
Turning towards the EU, Simms quickly pointed out what he perceived to be the EU’s critical flaw: the concept of trying to achieve political union through a gradual process of integration that would be crowned at some point in the future. Instead, Simms sees the EU’s current reality characterized by some decisive, and potentially fatal, imperfections that stem from the fact that the EU’s federal elements like the Euro or free travel are not underpinned by the necessary federal instruments such as joint economic policy and a coherent border policy. “Successful integration is an event, not a process”, Simms stated with view to the creation of the United Kingdom.
For Simms, British identity serves as a powerful example for successful political convergence: The UK’s transformation into one constitutional actor in a single act in 1707 illustrated that it is possible to create a state and have the demos follow. Following this assessment, Simms caused some initial astonishment among the audience as well as his discussion partner when he stated that “Britain is a well-ordered-space while the EU is not”. He elaborated by saying that a political body’s effectiveness is measured by its ability to take coherent control of crucial issues such as currency and border defense – and that the EU fulfills neither of these criteria. Instead, Simms argued, the 27 member states’ power has “evaporated” within the European framework for a single reason: While in the UK, power is maximized through unification, the EU’s inherent setup prevents an effective federal concentration of power and causes political paralysis. According to Simms, this circumstance may even imply that “the balance of power between the UK and the EU is a lot less lopsided than Europeans think”.
To overcome these conceptual deficits that prevent the European Union of becoming a fully functioning entity, Simms proposed the creation of a full economic and political union that may be asymmetrical like the United Kingdom or symmetrical like the United States, and which should then enter a close cooperation with the United Kingdom in military, economic and other affairs.
This argument turned out to be a big point of contention during the debate. Rödder was especially concerned with the immense political costs of trying to establish a sudden Union and argued that in particular the issue of scale, the heterogeneity of European cultures and languages, and the lack of political will make this proposal both politically unfeasible and incomparable to the act of establishing full political union in Great Britain. Fearing the institutional overstretch that a sudden full political union would have, Rödder instead pleaded for a flexible EU that focusses on core tasks where cooperation creates significant benefit such as infrastructure, digitalization and trade policy, combined with deeper cooperation between sovereign nation states.
The discussion furthermore revolved around the issue of German dominance and Europe. Simms argued that from a structural perspective, Germany as an unchecked unit is too large and powerful to exist peacefully within Europe. Britain, Simms laid out, has always considered the EU as a “vehicle for ordering Europe” designed to keep Germany from reclaiming supremacy as well as deter the Soviet threat. Rödder made the point that deep-seated fear of German dominance still runs deep and seems to have reemerged in parts of Europe since the Euro crises and other recent political challenges: Throughout Europe, Germany is frequently seen as forcing its idea of austerity on the continent, ignoring its own export surpluses and behaving like a geo-economic hegemon, among other things.
Another core theme throughout the discussion was the backstop as a key issue in Brexit negotiations. As Simms explained, Britain and especially the conservative forces within the Kingdom interpret the EU’s unwillingness to show flexibility in trying to find creative solutions as the block using its economic weight to coerce the UK to conform to its demands. As the issue is turning into a threat to British sovereignty in a key issue, customs union, and Britain remains deeply rooted in its conception of national sovereignty, Simms even pointed to the danger of creating a British Trumpism in its wake.