Britain is indisputably European. Our culture, our way of life, our main religion, our history and, for most of us, our heritage are all European. And yet our experiment at European integration which began in 1972 will begin to draw to a close today when the UK’s Permanent Representative to the European Union, Sir Tim Barrow, delivers a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, informing him that the UK is withdrawing from the EU under the terms of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Our fraught relationship with our nearest neighbours must be seen in the context of our long history. From the emergence of England as a political entity, the country accepted it was part of a larger Catholic whole and a political actor on the European stage. But the rise of an English identity also resulted in our defining national event: the break between Henry Tudor and the Church of Rome. On one level, it was just a divorce (and granted, there were a few of those in Henry VIII’s time!), but on a deeper level it was more profound than that. It was a dispute about whether power lies here in these islands, or on the Continent. Of course, the historical parallel is not complete, but the central question for most who voted to leave last June came down to that central point: does power lie with us or with them.
In late March 2019, the EU’s direct political influence over life in Britain will cease, and we must step up to the responsibility that comes with being an independent, sovereign nation. The European Court of Justice will no longer be able to constrain our courts and Justices. The European Commission’s Competition services will not be there to decide if particular companies have too much market influence. If we wish to pollute our beaches, over fish our seas, cut or raise VAT, make chocolate out of goodness knows what, or any other matter, our government, with our approval, will be entirely free to do so.
So what kind of country do we want to live in? What are our national values? Do we return to a Churchillian belief in a special mission of the English speaking peoples? Or do we forge a new vison, drawing on our multi-ethnic, post-colonial heritage to forge closer trade and political links with the fast growing economies of Asia? What will our close commercial, cultural and geographic proximity to Europe mean in ten years’ time?
The negotiations that will begin in May will not answer those questions. We many not even have the outline of an answer for many years, perhaps even decades. It is however a question that Britain, now uncoupled from the EU, can and must begin to think about.
By Simon Gentry, Partner, Public Affairs