Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation by Brendan Simms

The current crisis offers an opportunity for reform, according to this call for a federal union by an Irish historian, writes Robert Gerwarth

Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation
Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation
Author: Brendan Simms
ISBN-13: 978-0241275962
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £20

With the British referendum on EU membership fast approaching, UK-based academics from various disciplines and of different political persuasions have become increasingly engaged in the heated public debate surrounding Britain’s continued participation in the Union.

The latest intervention in the “Brexit” and “Bremain” debate comes from Brendan Simms, an Irish historian and Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University.

Simms' book, Britain's Europe, makes a strong plea for a complete political integration of the European Union, arguing for a federal Europe robust enough to survive without a reluctant Britain.

Simms is a historian known both for the wide range of his writings and for his ability to connect historical analysis with current affairs. He first drew the attention of larger audiences when he published his 2001 book Unfinest Hour, in which he analysed and condemned British foreign policy during the Bosnian war of 1992-95 as a modern-day repeat of the failure to contain Hitler during the Munich crisis of 1938.


Britain's long-standing relations and interactions with the Continent over the past 550 years was also the subject of his influential grand-narrative survey, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Present (2013).

In Britain's Europe, Simms' draws on these earlier works and the arguments underpinning them, but provides a more specific focus on Britain's past, current, and future place in Europe. With great virtuosity, Simms first surveys the various entanglements, connections and contacts between England and the Continent over the centuries, from the "bonds of Christendom" and the Viking invasions to dynastic intermarriages and the wars of the last five centuries.

Simms’s account of the high and low points of Euro-British encounters sets the stage for his more overtly political comments on the present and future of European affairs in the final chapters of the book.

In his plea for immediate political integration, he invokes Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech in which the former British prime minister demanded an “act of faith” to save Europe from “infinite misery and indeed from final doom”. Only the creation of a “kind of United States of Europe”, he argued, would rescue the Continent from further chaos. Churchill’s desire for a politically united, federal Europe can, of course, only be understood against the backdrop of the second World War, which had ended just the previous year. Yet, as Simms suggests, the time may be ripe to return to that vision. Europe today is arguably in its most severe crisis since 1945, beleaguered externally by a resurgent and aggressively expansionist Russia, threatened by Isis terrorism, and undermined from within by an unresolved economic crisis.

Economic wellbeing

This state of affairs, Simms suggests, is not in the interest of either continental Europe or of Britain, whose economic wellbeing and national security have always depended on stability on the European mainland. Instead of simply bemoaning the current multifaceted crisis, Simms emphasises it as a unique opportunity for genuine reform. The result of that reform, he argues, should be a federal union, following the model of the United States and the United Kingdom. Somewhat oddly, however, Simms’ vision for a united Europe does not include Britain. Unlike many continental European countries, Simms argues, Britain is unlikely to give up further sovereignty.

He is certainly right that Britain sees herself as an exceptional power, as even proponents of the EU in Britain advocate more flexibility rather than closer political integration. For Simms, the problem is that the British position – born partly, he argues, out of her own political crisis with Scotland – is a major impediment to a federal solution in Europe. Simms believes that it would be in London’s, as well as Europe’s, best interest to see a federal European superstate without British participation.

Simms’ core argument is that the creation of a federal Europe, composed of the member states of the euro zone, ought to occur immediately and certainly well before a British exit from the EU, as an uncoordinated withdrawal in the current situation would have a devastating effect on her European partners. The latter argument contradicts the assessment of many leading economists who predict that a Brexit would hit the UK harder than the EU but, even if we accept Simm’s contention, it seems unlikely that a majority of EU member states would back deeper political integration.

Resurgent nationalism

Resurgent nationalism in countries such as Greece, Hungary, Poland, and the Baltic States, but also in France and the Netherlands, is partly fuelled by objections to the European project. Few of the EU’s national governments are likely to give up further sovereignty, unless they are willing to be voted out of office in the next general elections.

Even in Germany, which was long the exception to this rule, the mood is changing in response to the Greek bailout programmes and the refugee crisis. Today, the Europhile attitude of the political elites in Berlin is more and more at odds with proliferating Euroscepticism among the electorate, as the alarming successes of the anti-Euro party, Alternative für Deutschland, clearly demonstrates.

Even if we assume that a European federation (without Britain) could become a reality, what would it look like? Simms envisages a “British-style, fully federal political union of the euro zone of which she will not be part, but with which she would maintain close confederal ties through Nato”. But why would a politically united Europe follow the example of Britain in implementing a federal structure? From a Continental perspective, Britain is seen as a troublesome friend, and it has not escaped European notice that very substantial minorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland would love to sever their ties with London sooner rather than later. So the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 is an unlikely political model for the EU. It is more likely that Germany would look to its own federal model as a blueprint for Europe. Following the potential EU-exit of Britain, any federation would be dominated even more fully than is currently the case by Germany. Yet – unlike in 1914 or in 1939 – Europe’s “reluctant hegemon” has little interest in leading the EU, leaving a dangerous vacuum in Europe when leadership, or at least some kind of political vision, is most sorely needed.

Given the current state of affairs in Europe, Simms’s book offers much food for thought. As a federalist myself, I have considerable sympathy for his position, even if I cannot see a general appetite in today’s Europe for the realisation of such a vision. But perhaps that is of secondary importance.

Like all truly stimulating and original works, this is a book worth reading even if one ultimately disagrees with the author’s conclusions, or if the time is not yet ripe for their realisation.

Robert Gerwarth is professor of modern history at University College Dublin