Great Britain is a country living in the past. One must only take a stroll through London to feel the grip of the magnificent imperial buildings, evoking through their silent nobleness the times when the city stood tall and proud as the capital of over half the world. Frankly though, those times are over.
Since WW1, when Britain´s hegemonic role was gradually handed over to the Americans, Britain’s influence as a great power has only declined. The aftermath of WW2 brought about a new order, bi-polarity, where war-exhausted Britain had hardly any role to play. Gradually giving up its colonies, Britain rightly understood that the world around it had changed and it had to go with it. In the meantime, the 50s and 60s arrived with a promise of a better life, and as British industry swelled, its economy prospered. Even then, however, the cooperative agreements of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and later the European Economic Community (EEC), were already proving fruitful to their member states, which meant that Britain soon lagged behind states such as France and West Germany. Correctly estimating this as a threat, the UK applied for EEC membership. After 2 vetoes by the French, Great Britain finally joined the community in 1973. Since then the structure of the European Community has changed significantly, provoking deep distrust from the UK polity and the sense that ‘this is not what we signed up for’.
In contrast, Poland´s role in international and European affairs has long been somewhat limited. Following the three Partitions of the Commonwealth (1772- 1795), it was only after WW1 that Poland effectively regained its full autonomy, though only for two decades. History was unkind to Poland (as it was to many CEE´s) and after WW2 it fell into the sphere of influence of the USSR. After 1989, Poland emerged a weak country, blinking in the sunlight of the western world.
All this historical background matters when trying to full appreciate the way changes in the “European Commonwealth” have had an impact on the two countries. Whilst Poland has been able to significantly improve its position over the past 20 years, British influence is at an all time low. This is not to say that the UK can no longer “punch above its weight”, being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), with considerable economic and military power, and some truly remarkable soft power it obviously can. The question is how long will it be able to do so? How long until it starts losing out badly to the “greater weights”?
So how to maintain UK´s high profile outside the EU? William Hague believes he has found an answer: the sharing of embassies with four “cousins” of the Commonwealth, perhaps with further cooperation down the road.
The Commonwealth of Nations has long played an important role in British foreign policy, but only recently has it returned to the top of the foreign policy agenda. This resurrection, however much it may make sense in hope of balancing the rising centralization of the EU, it makes little sense geopolitically. The UK´s geographic isolation on an island may have been an asset during the middle-ages – when continental Europe engaged in continuous wars over dominion – but has no relevance whatsoever in the financially and politically interconnected world of today. Indeed, the UK is not a group of islands somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic (as the British government often likes to think), but is in close proximity to the rest of Europe, and that is where its vital interests lie with over a half of UK trade being to the EU Single Market.
In this respect, Poland and the UK are very much alike. Indeed, the Poles too, have found an answer, but based on empirical experience it seems that their’s actually works. After the end of the Cold War, Poland was as isolated from the rest of Europe as the rest of the CEEs. During the next 20 years, however, Poland worked hard to present itself as a natural part of the EU, wherein it saw its political future – a position they have not faltered from even once the economic crisis settled in. By consolidating its role as a partner of Germany in EU integration, the Poles are sure to reap benefits from such a policy in the future. In a way, there seems to be a new “special relationship” in the making. There might indeed come a time, when Poland joins France and Germany as the “big three” of the EU, a position once predicted would be taken up by the UK.
Of a “special relationship” the Brits know quite a lot. For a considerable time, having the USA as its number one ally provided the UK with an unduly strong international standing. Nevertheless the world during the Cold War was a very different one from the world today, and with the US falling deeper and deeper into problems of its own, one might question whether it is wise to give this relationship precedence over cooperation and integration with Europe. Indeed, with the US openly declaring its withdrawal from European politics, concentrating its efforts once again on the Pacific region, it seems downright foolhardy to follow the States down this path. What with the world politics gradually grouping into distinguished super-blocks again (the USA, Asia headed by China, and potentially Europe), the UK will soon have to decide where its place lies. And if allying with the US makes little sense, with China counting as political suicide, Europe is really all Britain has got.
All in all, what are the possibilities before the UK? Quite simply, the optimal choice would be to join in the further integration of Europe, assert its position in tandem with Germany and France and project it´s power through the structures of the EU. This outcome would give it much more influence in the internal matters of the EU, and would consolidate the role of UK as a financial centre of Europe. Any alternative policies will yield suboptimal outcomes, such as further diminishing of UK´s power (it´s marginalization with respect to the EU), a tragedy for the City of London and loss of the European Community’s trust.