Oslo, the first Óðinsdagr of mörsugur, in the 28th year of the reign of King Harald V,
Despite Brexit, many Brexiteers maintain that the United Kingdom will maintain excellent ties with the with the EU and its member states. The UK is supposed to regain its sovereignty, but this should not mean that close cooperation is with the EU is impossible. However, European history does not suggest that the United Kingdom can or will cooperate with a political entity that covers most of the Continent. The UK might as well seek to divide the EU, as it has historically always done to any state which united the Continent under one banner.
For as long as England and the UK have been a major power in Europe, their main strategic goal in international politics has been to prevent the emergence of a country which could dominate the European mainland. When the French monarch aimed to get a family member on the throne in Spain, the UK fought France in the War of Spanish Succession. Since then the UK, more famously, also fought Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. Most recently, it balanced against the Soviet Union during the cold war. The main reason for this has always been that the UK is both dependent on the Continent for resources and for markets to sell goods on, while the UK could only ever be conquered by a for which dominates most of the European landmass. As long as the UK’s enemies had to fight on another front on the mainland, the UK’s navy would be powerful enough to ward off this enemy. Moreover, as long as the Continent is divided, the UK can negotiate favourable access to European markets and can play of suppliers of resources against each other.
Purely based on simple (and likely wrong) reasoning we could argue that 1. The UK seeks to divide or diminish any power which dominates the European mainland, 2. The EU covers most of the European mainland, 3. Therefore the UK must seek to divide the EU. This argument is too simplistic, but we should not disregard it altogether either.
A major argument for why the UK will maintain cooperative towards the EU would be that earlier political unifications of the continent were always executed by megalomaniac dictators. The EU is in no way a threat to the UK’s existence, so why seek trouble with it? Moreover, the UK did not join the predecessor of the European Union until 1973. In the years before it made no major effort to disrupt the project of European unification. Perhaps this shows that the UK can coexist with a major power on the Continent. Moreover, the UK will still be part of NATO, so the EU member states will remain formal military allies.
The UK will continue to want to influence European politics, because, regardless of what Brexiteers are saying, the UK’s economy and society is very much part of Europe. The EU is the UK’s main trade partner by far. Meanwhile, Brexit means the UK has lost its formal tools and rights within European decision making procedures. Because the EU is so much larger, the UK from now on will often have to accept policy outcomes coming out of the Brussels political arena, because the UK simply has no great negotiation position. Further European integration will only further reduce the UK’s negotiation position.
Or… the UK refuses to play this game and will try to divide European countries on many different policy issues, so the UK can still influence policy outcomes. The message that the UK is no longer a world power which can do without the EU seems to not really have landed in Tory circles. Moreover, the Tories seem to believe that the EU is, in fact, a dictatorial dictatorship which is actively trying to subdue British sovereignty. Tories have compared the EU to the Third Reich. Nevermind whether Boris Johnson really believes this – does the man hold any beliefs beyond his birthright to become Prime Minister? If a hard Brexit happens, and Tories blame the EU for their own follies, British voters may believe the comparison has a strong basis in reality. This may, in turn, cause massive problems for UK – EU relations.
Besides, even though the UK did cooperate with the EU’s predecessors, this was in the middle of the Cold War. The European Community was no danger to the UK, in fact, the Soviet Union was the big nemesis. And while NATO will not be abolished due to Brexit, the UK may still seek to frustrate European political and economic integration.
In other words, while a one on one comparison of the EU with Napoleon or Hitler is complete poppycock, the UK may still feel threatened by a unified Europe, and therefore seek to divide Europe. This is not at all the same as maintaining excellent relations with the mainland, as promised by the Conservative Party. In other words, I think that UK – EU relations will be strained for some time to come, with the UK seeking to divide EU member states on as many issues as possible in order to strengthen its own hand.
Bottom line: The UK has never existed comfortably side by side with a state which spanned the entire Continent. We should not blindly assume it will start doing so now with regards to the EU.