Love and war: Britain’s affair with Europe

Best of foes: Britain grovels before the French Republic, then its enemy, in this 1795 cartoon.

Britain is bitterly divided over its membership in the European Union. But this is only the latest chapter in the nation’s stormy relationship with Europe, which stretches back millennia…

On one level, next week’s referendum is about the European Union, and whether its institutions benefit Britain. Yet it also raises a deeper question of identity: how European does Britain feel? This issue predates the EU, drawing on centuries of shifting relations between the nation and the continent.

As Europhiles like to say, Britain is a land of immigrants. From prehistoric times, successive waves of continental peoples landed on its shores, each bringing distinct languages, technologies and cultural practices. There were the Celts, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings. In 1066, the Normans came and founded a dynasty that would speak French for 300 years.

Over the centuries, the British Isles maintained close ties with Europe. The wool trade with Flanders powered England’s economy in the Middle Ages. In 1373, the country forged an alliance with Portugal that still stands today – the oldest in the world. Britain was a major player in European wars, and held territories in the Mediterranean. In this context, its membership in the EU makes sense.

But Eurosceptics tell another story. Britain, they point out, is an island nation. Its navy founded the world’s greatest empire. It turned to its colonies for resources and a sense of purpose. This arrangement nurtured a stable political system based on the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of free trade, different from anything on the continent.

For centuries, Britain cultivated a kind of aloofness from Europe (’splendid isolation’, as it was later called). Even when it got tied up in wars, it tended to see itself as a lone combatant against a hostile continent – as when it fended off the Nazis in 1940. Of course, the nation’s geographic isolation played its part in that victory.

The man who led Britain through that war, Winston Churchill, once said that ‘we are with Europe, but not of it’. This phrase sums up the nation’s ambivalent relationship with Europe. When it comes to the crunch, which way does Britain swing?

This scepter’d isle

Britain is not European, say some. Our language, political traditions and cultural values bring us closer to America and the Commonwealth. The Europeans do not see us as part of their continent; the fact that we call them ‘Europeans’ shows that we agree. Our special geography, our domestic stability, have created a unique society.

Poppycock, comes the reply. Narrowly viewed, any country looks unique. More broadly, and allowing for some peculiarities, Britain clearly belongs to Europe. Our language, politics and culture would not even exist without millennia of invasions and influence from the continent. ‘Splendid isolation’ is a blip in this sweep of history.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel patriotic? Why (not)?
  2. Are continents a useful way of classifying the world’s countries?


  1. English words come from a wide range of sources, including German, French, Gaelic, Danish and Greek. Find one example for each of those languages, then write a sentence using all of them.
  2. Draw a timeline of the history of the British Isles. Mark the ten events that you think define Britain’s relationship with Europe. For each, write a two-sentence summary of what happened.

Some People Say...

“Without Britain, Europe would remain only a torso.”

Ludwig Erhard

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not British. Why should I care whether Britain leaves the EU?
The result will be felt far and wide. Countries that have strong trade links with Britain would be affected by the economic shock of a vote to leave. According to recent analysis, Ireland would be hit the hardest, followed by Malta and Luxembourg. Brexit could also set a precedent, causing other countries to hold referendums of their own – Euroscepticism is not unique to Britain.
Why did Britain join the EU in the first place?
Britain joined what was then known as the European Economic Community in 1973, drawn largely by the economic benefits of its common market. It had tried to join twice before, only to be vetoed both times by French President Charles de Gaulle, who doubted Britain’s commitment to European affairs.

Word Watch

Great Britain is the island comprising England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom is the union of those three countries and Northern Ireland. ‘Britain’ can be used to refer to either entity.
Wool trade
One relic of this age is the ‘Woolsack’, the wool-stuffed cushion on which sits the speaker of the House of Lords.
Such as Malta, Cyprus and Gibraltar. The last is still British.
European nations tend to be more tolerant of state intervention, and have been readier to cede sovereignty to the European Union, or favour ‘ever closer union’. A number of reasons can be suggested: their recent experiences of radical political change, their need to protect relatively large agricultural sectors, the totemic importance of Magna Carta liberalism in Britain.
Splendid isolation
A term coined by a Canadian politician in 1896, to praise Britain’s minimal involvement in European politics at the time.
The Commonwealth
The collective name for the former dependencies and member states of the British Empire. These still enjoy close cultural and economic ties.

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