Two key arguments continue to be advanced by those who favour a British exit from the European Union. It is firstly, they claim, a way of managing immigration. Secondly, it is a crucial step towards restoring national sovereignty. The two ideas meet in the battle cry ‘Securing Britain’s borders’.
The modern understanding of national sovereignty – the principle that the authority to govern emanates from a nation that exists as a single body able to express its will – is, well, a very European one. It is found in Article 3 of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. Note the absence of any mention of nationality here. Indeed, it’s that very universalism – the idea that the Revolution was producing a blueprint for the governance of all national societies – that drove many French citizens to believe that their nation above all others was invested with a mission: to lead the peoples of Europe from tyranny to liberty. And it was against this national, revolutionary zeal that many European nations reacted. But, in order to mobilise against the armies of the First Republic and then of Napoleon Bonaparte, the governments of Britain, Prussia and Russia, for example, had to resort increasingly to the sort of popular nationalism that gripped France from the Battle of Valmy to the Battle of Waterloo.
Nationalisms, like nations, do not exist in a vacuum; they react and bump against each other and are informed by intense rivalries. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries France was to Germany what Arsenal are to Spurs. But nationalists even at this high point of nationalistic rivalry were never isolationist. Even the most virulent French nationalists travelled extensively in the interwar years, sharing ideas, but also expressing differences, with like-minded movements and individuals across Europe. The Action Française, a far-right monarchist movement that hankered for a return to pre-Revolutionary absolutism under a king who ruled by divine right, admired Mussolini’s smartly-clad Black Shirts, raved about the economic miracle that was Salazar’s New State in Portugal, and then cheered on Franco’s National Revolution and its eradication of the Spanish Republic during that country’s civil war. Underpinning this enthusiasm for authoritarianism was a commitment to the principle of Latinity – a belief that the Mediterranean nations share the cultural and political heritage of Ancient Rome and that the region, and the French nation, would rise again to international prominence by rejecting democracy.
As extreme as the case of Action Française may seem, the movement reflects a fundamental reality of all national movements. Far from operating in a vacuum neatly delineated by impenetrable national borders, they in fact openly engage in a dialogue with other, carefully selected partners. More than this, they have a long history of conceiving of themselves as members of a transnational family. Sometimes crude racial politics are invoked to suggest these family ties, but these family resemblances and connections are always a matter of geography and culture.
What, then, could we expect of a European Union without Britain and of a Britain outside the EU? Could Britain enjoy the form of self-sufficiency that some Eurosceptics invoke in the memory of a pre-EU world where things could be bought and consumed in what is, for most of us, the incomprehensible lingo of imperial measurements? Most Eurosceptics are far less nostalgic and admit that Britain would in fact be forced to seek new partners in the world. A post-Brexit British government would have to quickly seek these out in those parts of the world with which Britain enjoys already strong cultural ties. But where would these be? The United States, either under a Democrat regime which has already hinted that Britain’s place in the world would be diminished by Brexit, or perhaps a Republican one led by Donald Trump who swings from advocate of US isolationism to expansionism on a daily basis? Or elsewhere in the English-speaking world in Britain’s former colonies, many of which still carry the scars and memories of imperialism.
Brexit would have wider ramifications still for Europe as a whole, of course. According to Robert Niblett, Director of Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs, it would give added strength and momentum to other Eurosceptic and nationalist movements across Europe. Ultimately, it could lead to the fragmentation of the remainder of the EU and a return to the Europe of nations so desired by all Eurosceptics. Britain would then be free to seek out new partners amongst the shards of the Union. Indeed, it could be at the forefront of a new alliance of likeminded European states battling the remnants of the old Union. What voters have to decide ahead of the forthcoming EU referendum, then, is whether it is easier to reconfigure Britain’s relationship with its fellow European nations from a self-imposed position on the margins of Europe or, as it currently does, from a position of influence within the EU. Either way, Britain cannot escape the necessity of engaging with a Europe to which it is tied geographically and culturally.