By Paul F. State
“Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off.” The famous headline in a British newspaper many years ago is said to be apocryphal, but, regardless, it sums up perfectly the mindset toward continental Europe that long characterized many Britons. While geographically near, Europe has been psychologically far for those who put the “Great” in Great Britain front and center in their mental maps.
The vote Thursday on whether to remain in or sever ties with the European Union is a momentous one because Britons will now have to choose how they define their country and the direction that they seek for it. On the roster of the member nations, Britain has always been listed with an asterisk. Though it was Winston Churchill who, in 1946, famously called for the creation of a “United States of Europe,” his words were meant to encourage his continental neighbors to forge closer ties – but to do so without Britain, which, he had earlier stated, was “with” Europe but not “of” it.
A latecomer to European unity, the country did not join what was then the European Economic Community until 1973. When it did gain entrance it opted out of key provisions or asked for exceptions to the rules – the pound and not the euro remains the currency, the Schengen Agreement on borderless controls does not apply to Britain.
In fairness, Great Britain is unlike any other member. It came to the club with a legacy as a global superpower, the country that stood astride the globe as the colossus of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries in ruling one-quarter of the world’s surface. When you were once the top card in the deck, it is hard to accept being just another one among many others in the pack.
Those in favor of a “Brexit” from Europe and those who support staying in cite statistics and studies galore to bolster their arguments, but the matter is not really about economics and cold, hard numbers. Rather, the crux of the issue centers on those intangible sentiments that make up national pride. Will the British sublimate their national ego in continuing to participate in a supranational work in progress in building regional governing structures or, and especially in light of the crises currently afflicting the European Union, will they opt for independence of action in trusting solely to the time-tested institutions they know so well?
Nations change over time. The forces of multiculturalism and globalization at work in the United States today compel us to reflect on how we, too, respond to them. Just as in Great Britain, does patriotism move us to draw inward and place our trust in that which is familiar or do we acknowledge that we can fit our love for our country within broader currents at work in our world?
Paul F. State, of Buffalo, is the author of four books on European history, including “Historical Dictionary of Brussels” (2015).