Britain’s Future: Which Side will they Choose?

In January 2013, David Cameron finally promised an “in” or “out” referendum on the membership of Great Britain within the European Union, after years of scepticism about the relationship between Britain and the other European nations.[1] While the speech was intended to calm Europeans leaders’ nerves, it also aimed to appease the British public with their current hostile sentiment towards Europe, especially with consideration to immigration. As Cameron stated, while British might “have the character of an island nation – independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty”, he also added that he was “not a British isolationist”[2] aiming to retreat Britain from participating in the regional European forum. While Cameron openly stated his opposition to Britain exiting the EU, he nevertheless understood the implications of Britain leaving would not be as catastrophic as the Labour Party would suggest. While much speculation about this “choice” has occurred over the years following World War II, it remains uncertain as to whether the decision will have to be made and if it does, whom would Britain choose.

Image courtesy of Andrew Parsons, ©2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Andrew Parsons, ©2010, some rights reserved.


From the very beginning of the conception of the European Union, Britain has not been a key advocate of such an association. In the 1950s, Britain did not join Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries’ plan to form a single market including coal and steel.[3] By 1970, however, Britain’s relative economic power had radically declined.[4] Meanwhile, European countries that were aiming to rebuild Europe into a military, political and economic community appealed to Britain not to retreat into an imperial economic and political laager. As Monnet stated, Britain could have been “a nucleus around which a European community might be formed.”[5] However, Britain was convinced that the American ‘special relationship’ should be more greatly valued. The continued attempt to replace lost power with influence and maintain an executive position within the “three circles”[6], as Churchill described, ultimately failed; twenty years after the adoption of Churchill’s vision, “Britain, by not choosing one path or another, has been gradually forced to let down all three.”[7] It became apparent that Britain should become increasingly Europe-orientated, which occurred throughout 1970s and 1980s.

History suggests that Britain will have to choose between a European and an Atlantic future as aiming to be part of both “circles” proved difficult and ineffective. This was especially with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, through which the British government lost much of their international credibility for supporting the USA. Arguably, Blair’s standing in the EU never fully recovered from the fall out of the war couple with their decision not to hold a referendum on joining the euro. After this immense foreign policy failure, Britain aimed to distance themselves from their ‘special relationship’ with little long-term success. Fundamentally, in terms of hard security, the British remain irrevocably tied to the USA, as “Britain is dependent on America for its nuclear deterrent, possession of which is considered a prerequisite for the maintenance of Britain’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council.”[8] Britain’s limbo between the two continents throughout history has postponed the need for them to choose: a choice, which may have to be made in 2017 when the referendum has been promised.

As the Financial Times reported, while “emotion draws Britain west across the Atlantic… hard calculation as often pulls it back to Europe.”[9] The danger lies with the British sceptics whose “romanticism is eclipsing realism”[10] wanting Britain to split from the Union. Additionally, the fundamental problem with Europe, as it stands, is the euro. As David Miliband stated, “the creation of the Euro remains the biggest threat to global economic stability because of its struggling currency union.”[11] Of course the current economic fragility, which is being seen in the Eurozone, is being further hampered by the austerity measures currently being enacted. As it stands, there needs to be a centre-left vision for the future of Europe, which would acknowledge the democratic deficit and aim to reform the union for long-lasting, effective change. The choice that Britain will aim to make is still contentious as currently, it looks increasingly possible that the “in” or “out” referendum that Cameron promised for 2017 could allow Britain to exit the EU therefore allowing Britain’s influential position within the international forum to decline further. As politicians aim to balance domestic popularity with their international commitments, the choice between Europe and the USA remains uncertain. Strategically, it remains sensible for Britain to maintain their involvement with the EU but if 2017 does see the split of Britain from the EU, the ramifications would be profound.

The fundamental problem persuading the British against remaining within the EU is due to the fact that “the euro-zone crisis has exposed the lack of dynamism in much of Europe entirely.”[12] Britons now associate the EU with uncontrolled immigration from Eastern European countries and therefore, a British exit seems ever more possible. The short-term benefits for Britain would be seen, especially economically as London would regain and ferment it’s status as a global financial hub. However, without the shield of single-market rules, London could lose out to rival EU centres and the membership of the EU customs union remains beneficial for UK firms who export to the EU. Idealistically Britain would want to have the same status as Switzerland, but most likely Britain would receive the title of an “outsider with limited access to the single market, almost no influence and few allies.”[13] Therefore, in conclusion, UK foreign policy would be greatly hindered by a choice regarding its foreign policy’s future, and therefore while British idealism pull it towards the “American dream”, realistically, UK needs to maintain a strong presence within the EU. The British idealism will be the cause of their downfall as if the British in hope of stronger Anglo-American relations, would forgo their European connection, thus reducing their economic and diplomatic attraction to all emerging economies especially China and India. The fundamental mistake would be to imagine that Britain could put itself at the centre of an array of global networks if it leaves behind existing alliances.

[1] BBC Website, David Cameron Speech: UK and the EU, 23rd January 2013 (Last Accessed: 14.04.2014)

[2] Ibid, BBC website, 23rd January 2013

[3] The Economist, “Britain and Europe: Making the Break”, 8th December 2012 (Last Accessed: 14.04.2014)

[4] Strange, Susan, “Sterling and British Foreign Policy: A Political View”, International Affairs, Vol. 47, No. 2, April 1971

[5] Palmer, John; op cit, p83.

[6] The “Three Circles”, coined by Churchill, showed Britain to be in the intersection of United Europe, the Empire-Commonwealth and the US & the Anglophone world.

[7] Calleo, David; “Britain’s Future”, London, Hodder & Slughton, 1969, p185.

[8] Hood, F.; “Atlantic Dreams and European Realities: British Foreign Policy after Iraq”, European Integration, Vol. 30, No. 1, 183-197, March 2008, p195

[9] Stephens, Phillip, “British foreign policy should be realist”, (Last Accessed: 14.04.2014)

[10] Stephens, Phillip; Ibid.

[11] Miliband, David; Ibid.

[12] The Economist, Ibid.

[13] The Economist, Ibid.

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