England’s historical relationship with Europe and what this means for Brexit and the future.  

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In 1475 Edward IV of England signed a treaty with Louis XI of France in which he formally renounced his claim to the French throne.  The war that would later be called the Hundred Year’s War finally came to an end.  This marked a huge geopolitical and cultural shift for England.  It would stop seeking to regain lost territory on the European continent and a generation later would embark on a colonisation programme that would eventually encompass the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia.  This shift helps to explain Britain’s current ambivalence towards Europe and will influence the referendum on 23rd June 2016 on whether Britain remains part of the European Union.  History Future Now goes back in time to see how the past impacts our present and our future.

Stage 1: Scandinavian and Norman invaders lock England into Europe

Prior to 1066 England had been an Anglo-Saxon dominated country with a large Danish minority that lived in much of eastern England. These Germanic and Nordic tribes had gradually supplanted the Romano British peoples after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west.  England was thoroughly integrated into the culture of the North Sea.   Canute the Great, for example, who died in 1035 and is famous for commanding the tide not to come in, was simultaneously King of England, King of Denmark and King of Norway.  After the successful invasion of England by William Duke of Normandy, in 1066, the geopolitical orientation of England shifted from the North Sea to the lands to the south of the English Channel.

Norman invasion

It is worth noting that the Normans themselves were originally Nordic raiders who had successfully taken over northern France with the reluctant agreement of the French monarchy who hoped that these Viking raiders would stop further incursions and invasions by their brethren.  These Viking raiders married local women, abandoned their Nordic gods, language and names and became Christian, adopted French customs and swore fealty to the King of France.  So when William invaded England he brought this French culture with him to England.  He replaced nearly all of the old Anglo-Saxon-Danish land-owning aristocracy with Norman and French nobles who had joined him in his gamble to take the crown of England.

For several hundred years these Norman and French elites maintained their estates in both France and in England.  England was a foreign country, to be dominated by castles and to be exploited.  The main language spoken by these invaders was an early form of French which gradually diffused into the Anglo-Saxon language spoken by the majority of the population living in England. The ruling family in England, the Plantagenets for most of this period, controlled large swathes of what is now western France for centuries.  Richard I, who is thought of in England as a “good English king”, barely spent 6 months of his ten year reign as King of England in England and imposed huge taxes to fund his Crusades.  To highlight how French they were, both Henry II , who died in 1189, and his son Richard I, who died in 1199, were buried in Fontevraud Abbey near Anjou, France, and not in England.

The nobles were feudal subjects to the descendants of William, who had became King William I of England, for their lands in England and feudal subjects to the French king for their lands in France.   Curiously, the English king was also a feudal vassal of the French king for their lands in France, a situation that frequently caused issues when conflicts between the ruling families of each country flared up.

Over time both the nobility and royal family lost their lands in France.  The primary cause was how lands were split between children, as part of their inheritance. If you had two sons and had lands both in France and in England one son might inherit the bulk of the lands in France and the other the bulk of lands in England.  As this practice happened over multiple generations the nobles in England would have very few French possessions and the nobles in France would have very few English possessions.

This had profound consequences. The less involvement the English nobility had in France the less supportive they were of fighting in France to defend Plantagenet family holdings.  This accelerated the loss of French lands by the Plantagenet family culminating in King John’s loss of the Duchy of Normandy, the original landholding of the Norman conquerors of England, in 1204.

Stage 2: England abandons Europe and develops a global empire

As England’s royal family and nobility became increasingly English – and spoke English as their main language- and less French they also found other lands that they could take over and hold more easily – those in the Americas.  In 1497, five years after Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean islands on a voyage financed by the Spanish ruling family, another Genoese navigator, John Cabot, discovered eastern Canada on a voyage financed by Henry VII of England. Further voyages resulted in establishments of colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. After the American colonies became independent in 1783 Britain’s overseas empire would shift to Africa, India, the far East and Australasia.

British Empire Map 1915

England’s policy towards Europe gradually shifted from one of engagement and trying to retake lost lands in France to trying to maintain a balance of power so that no single European country could threaten England’s overseas empire. Europe switched from being the homeland of the nobility who ruled England to being a source of trouble, conflict and competition.  In the 1500s Spain was a major threat to England. In the 1600s and the 1700s France was a major threat.  In the 1900s Germany and then the Soviet Union became a major threat.

Stage 3: England loses its global empire and seeks to re-engage with Europe

After the end of the Second World War Britain went through a process of decolonisation.  Colonies, which had been perceived as a source of great strength, became economic and political liabilities.  Britain’s white colonies,  Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which had emerged as a result of large scale emigration from Britain, became independent through an amicable split.  Britain rushed out of India as the inhabitants of the sub continent made it very clear that they wanted the British out as soon as possible.  Britain’s African colonies, which were its most recent and least economically viable, became independent by the 1950s and 1960s.

This created an identity crisis.  For about 400 years from 1066 onwards, England’s geopolitical orientation had been centred around France and Europe.  From 1500 to the 1950s England’s geopolitical orientation stretched further afield to its American then Asian, African and Australasian colonies. After nearly 500 years of seeing Europe as something to manage rather than to engage with England found itself both outside Europe and without an overseas colonial empire.

In 1963 the United Kingdom, under the Conservative government, applied to join the European Economic Community, a free trade zone of nine member states including France, West Germany and Italy. While many of its former colonies had coalesced into a rather nebulous “Commonwealth” Britain could see that much of its future prosperity lay with Europe.  This first attempt to join the EEC did not go well:  French President De Gaulle, fearing that the UK would supplant France’s dominance in EEC, vetoed Britain’s membership.  Britain would eventually join in 1973, after De Gaulle’s death, and held a referendum in 1975 on whether it should continue its membership.  The majority of the Conservative party supported EEC membership and the Labour party was split with the majority of its members calling to exit the EEC and its leadership supporting staying in, rather like the Conservative party today with respects to the Referendum in June 2016.

Stage 4: Britain becomes uncertain about its relationship with Europe

The European Union today is a different beast to the EEC that Britain joined in 1973.  It is no longer just a free trade zone.  It is significantly larger in terms of member states and has expanded its legislative tentacles deep into the national laws of its member states.  The bulk of the EU is linked together with a single currency, the Euro, whose value and stability is strongly linked to Germany, which reunified in 1990 and now has the largest economy and population in Europe.

From Britain’s perspective, its relationship with the new European Union feels odd.  From the early 1500s onwards it had been the dominant player in the relationships it had with people outside Britain, in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia.  Britain is not the dominant player in the European Union; that role falls to Germany and, to a lesser extent, France.   Laws drafted by Parliament in Britain would be adopted by the American colonies, Australia, India and in South Africa.  Now laws drafted by the European Commission and enacted by the European Parliament are imposed on Britain.  The Pound Sterling was widely used by many of its colonies and Britain was the dominant economy.  Now the Euro is used throughout most of the EU and Germany is the dominant economy.  The only area that Britain has a claim to supremacy versus the rest of the European Union is its military, which it is prepared to use outside Europe far more frequently and effectively than other EU states.

The majority of Conservative party members and much of the country over fifty years of age now want Britain to leave the European Union.  They are concerned by loss of sovereignty as EU laws becoming increasingly dominant.  They are worried by large scale immigration both from EU member states and elsewhere.  They are worried that the Euro is weak and the Euro zone economy is weak and that this will be bad for Britain.  All those arguments are valid.

Stage 5: English Choices on Europe: independence, muddling along or ever closer union

On the 23rd June 2016 Britain will have another referendum on whether to stay in the European Union or to leave.  While the likelihood is that Britain will stay, there will still be choices to be made.  What are these choices?

1 – Britain votes to leave

In this scenario Britain votes to leave the European Union.  Untangling its relationships with the European Union will take time.  It could take years before a deal is worked out and it is likely that the government will feel the need to go back to the people one more time and say “this is the exit deal – do you still think we should leave on this basis?”.

Under this scenario it is hard to imagine senior Conservative leaders staying in their jobs.  Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne have clearly stated that they think the UK should stay, against the wishes of the majority of Conservative party MPs and members. If Britain votes to leave there would be strong pressure for them to be replaced by someone who has stated they want to exit the EU.  That candidate is likely to be Boris Johnson.  His job would be to negotiate the best deal possible – something that allows the UK to exit but still provides full access to the European Union without any trade barriers.

If Britain votes to leave the EU it is hard to imagine Scotland staying on as part of the United Kingdom.  Scotland tried, but failed, to leave the United Kingdom in 2014.  It would want to remain part of the EU.  As a result it is likely that Scottish Nationalist party, which dominates the Scottish parliament with 54 out of the 59 available seats, would push for another referendum to separate from the United Kingdom.  Unlike the previous referendum when EU leaders stated that Scotland would have to apply to join the European Union, with the hints that it would be difficult to do so, it is likely that EU leaders would make it very easy for an independent Scotland to stay part of the European Union.

It is possible that with the threat of losing Scotland and a poor settlement offer as part of exiting the EU that the public in Britain will vote not to exit in a second referendum. More likely, however, is that Conservative politicians in England would be happy to see Scotland go as it would increase the likelihood of the Conservative party – which is dominant in England and has only one Member of Parliament in Scotland – staying in power in England for the foreseeable future.

If Scotland stays in the European Union and leaves the United Kingdom there will be questions asked in Northern Ireland and Wales.  Northern Ireland has no Conservative party MPs and is split between Unionists and Nationalist MPs.  In Wales the Conservative are a minority – 25 of the 40 MPs are from the Labour party and only 11 from the Conservative party.  Would they prefer to stay part of the European Union or part of the United Kingdom that has lost Scotland?  If they did stay it is likely that they would get significantly greater autonomy from England than they already enjoy.

As an independent country England, stripped of Scotland and possibly Northern Ireland and Wales, would be diminished though not by as much as one would expect.  The populations of Scotland (5.3m), Wales (3m) and Northern Ireland (1.8m) are dwarfed by that of England (53m).  The English economy is significantly greater than all of the other remaining parts of the United Kingdom and net flows of cash go from England to the other regions.

But what would England’s role be in the world without the United Kingdom and without the European Union?  It would have lost its possible role in the European Union.  Could it have an even more “special relationship” with the United States?  This is unlikely.  If England is concerned about loss of sovereignty as a result of EU legislation it would feel an even greater loss if it had a stronger relationship with the United States or Canada.  And why would the US want a stronger relationship with 53 million people in England rather than 460 million people in the European Union?

Where else could it go?  An expanded Commonwealth role?  Why would this be any better than the EU?  Australia is more in the orbit of the United States and is worried about Chinese expansion.  How would England help Australia? New Zealand is really on the other side of the world and has a population smaller than Scotland.  What about Africa?  If England is concerned about migration from the European Union it is unlikely that they would want to see mass migration from Africa.  What about India?  There are strong family ties between India and people living in England so that might help.

What is likely is that England would find itself isolated and without any natural allies.  Isolation may be no bad thing, however.  Isolation can result in a greater sense of national identity.  England has the weakest sense of self in the United Kingdom. Scots are Scots. The Welsh are Welsh. The Northern Irish are Irish.  But who are the English?

Isolation can also help with creative thinking.  England won’t have to worry about other countries in the United Kingdom or the European Union.  The World Trade Organisation has helped to lower tariffs and harmonise standards around the world.  It is likely that England would still be able to trade more or less freely with those countries it wanted to trade with.  Perhaps England could become a haven for companies and people who want access to an educated English speaking population that has less red tape than other parts of the developed world?  England has a strong legal system, which is used by companies all over the world for settling disputes, a very strong international financial system and internationally acclaimed universities.

England could develop an empire of the mind rather than territory.

2- Britain votes to stay.

Staying in the European Union is a more probable outcome.  But even this will result in a decision on what kind of relationship Britain wants to have with the rest of the European Union.

One option is to continue on a business as usual basis.  A reluctant member, but a member none the less.  This option would not be satisfying for any side of the debate.  Those who wanted out are likely to try again in the future, in the same way that Scotland is likely to try again in the future to leave the United Kingdom.  Once the genie of independence is out of the bottle it is hard to put it back in.

A second option is for the United Kingdom to engage more with Europe.  Those that argued to leave the European Union would have been rejected by the British public.  Those that want to engage more with Europe could claim that the referendum provides them with a mandate for greater involvement in Europe.

It is very hard, however, to see this second scenario happening in the short term.  There will be no calls to join the Euro.  There will still be calls to restrict immigration.  Most importantly there are not enough British politicians or businessmen who understand European politics or languages well enough to be able to engage more with Europe.  While continental European bureaucracies and companies have dealt with intra-European issues for hundreds of years Britain has focused on its overseas empire and has just tried to stop individual European powers from becoming too dominant.  Britain’s historic relationship with Europe has been to block rather than to offer expansive ideas.

History Future Now prediction on Brexit

The United Kingdom – and specifically England – is uncertain about its relationship with Europe.  After the Second World War it saw Europe as a place to trade with, partially to make up for its loss of its world empire.  After joining the European Economic Community in 1973 it is now part of a European Union that has many of the trappings of a superstate, with its own currency, laws and supranational parliament.  Once a power that dictated terms to the rest of its colonies it is now being dictated to by a Europe that it does not really understand or wants to understand.

History Future Now predicts that Britain will vote to stay in the European Union.  Younger people feel a greater affinity to Europe than the older generation, who still dream of Britain’s overseas empire. In 25 years time as today’s university graduates are at the peaks of their careers and have been thoroughly connected to Europe it is unlikely that there will be a call to disengage from Europe again.

The reverse, in fact may be true.  Over the next 25 years it is likely that parts of Europe may be even more interlinked politically than they are today.  Britain may hold a referendum to join that ever closer union.


History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

About the Author

- Tristan Fischer is the author of all the articles on History Future Now. He is the Chairman of Lumicity Ltd, a company developing renewable energy infrastructure projects, Chairman of Fischer Farms Ltd, a vertical farming company using hydroponics, and a board Director of Fish From Ltd, an onshore salmon company. He previously worked for Camco International, Shell Renewables and Citigroup. He was educated at Cambridge University. If you liked this article and want to read more, the ebook edition of History Future Now, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!

  • Alison H

    I don’t think anyone is naïve enough still to be dreaming of the days of Empire, but there are many concerns and issues relating to EU membership. Having said which, I don’t think there’ll be a vote for Brexit, because people tend to vote on the lines of better the devil you know than the uncertainty you don’t know.

  • Lawrence JM

    There is a ghost of an Empire and it’s ex British Hong Kong where many Blue Eyed Chinese do not look 100% Chinese. I interviewed few and they do have a wild tale to tell in their exposure to the West from being on the Titanic to building Railroads in Texas to doing what ever in Chinatown in San Francisco. It is also, follow the money to Shanghai.

  • Malcom S

    Britain gained a permanent seat within the United Nations Security Council but Britain is a small country with less influence than in 1945. Even then we were no longer the industrial, commercial, imperial or political power we had been. Our military prowess was based largely on naval supremacy and financial support of our continental allies to fight a proxy war on our behalf. Since WW2 Britain has not faced a major adversary on its own. It fought a couple of essentially colonial wars and Argentina. The U.S.A. forced Britain to back down over Suez. Going to war is hopefully a thing of the past but these events highlight Britain’s changing place and role in Europe and the world. Britain joined age north atlantic treaty organisation and the European Economic Community in an attempt to bolster our waning influence. We felt we would be better off as part of a multinational group, that we would still have influence within those bodies.

    The E.E.C. evolved to promote co-operation rather than confrontation in western Europe. The British government later viewed membership of this economic union as beneficial. This his since developed into a political grouping. For most of our 40+ years as a member the Conservative party was in power and they oversaw this process.

    Britain played a major role in the establishment of the European Convention on Human Rights but recent publicity has turned the public against The European Court of Human Rights. The other ‘big issue’ is corruption and lack of accountability. Cameron ‘stuck his neck’ out but hasn’t achieved much of a ‘deal’. It is apparent that he always wanted to remain in the E.U. but his inability to negotiate any real concessions harms his case. He would have better trying to establish some means of overhauling and enforcing an effective auditing system. This would have gained him wider support in Britain and in Europe and would have appeared less negative.

    Maybe a vote for Britain to remain in the E.U. would provide some impetus to reform the organisation. Cameron should also have not used public funds to promote the ‘stay’ campaign. That may be the Government’s policy but the Cabinet is very divided so he doesn’t really have a mandate to use the taxpayers’ money. The intervention of external agencies does not help either. President Obama’s comments were immediately rebuffed with remarks about American defence of their sovereignty, but the U.S.A. is a member of N.A.T.O., admittedly by far the most influential, partly on the basis of its commitment. On the other hand Obama only articulated the reality of a post-Brexit scenario. There would be no point telling us after the event. Johnson’s comments don’t help his cause either.

    It would be informative to be offered clear figures of what we contribute and what we receive. The Brexit pamphlet for example starts with our £20 billion contribution. We were told this money would help to rebuild the N.H.S. This is in fact an admission of how precarious are the finances of our health service. Instead with the £5 billion rebate we contribute £15 billion. Various regions and industries receive money from the E.U. Our net ‘loss’ is something less than £4 billion. Individually that’s the equivalent of a broadband or Sky T.V. subscription. It depends on the hidden benefits you gain through membership or what you achieve through independence but those evaluations are less objective. 15 billion sounds a lot it is. So is 4 billion. Britain gives almost £12 billion in overseas aid.

    The world is a very different place from 1973. It is much more cosmopolitan. A million Britons own property in Europe. That may be enough to sway the vote. Britain has been a member the E.E.C/E.U. for over 40 years. Having joined a ‘club’ it will be difficult and unsettling to leave. That is the unknown. Will we be ‘ostracised’, will we be ignored, as Obama implies? Immigration and security are additional issues that have come to the fore in recent months. What is the impact of E.U. membership?

    ‘Brexit’ may harm or benefit Britain. It will damage the E.U. Other countries may follow suit.

    • fritz123

      “Maybe a vote for Britain to remain in the E.U. would provide some impetus to reform the organisation.” Yes!! Thanks for the overview. Suez, I posted some youtube BBC doc on it on fb today with the title “yes minister”. It sounds so terrible familiar from Chalabi etc and the Iraq war. The US were very wise in this situation IMHO. Much more wise than in 1990 and later.

  • Holland P

    As for the EU in general, this is the first time since the EU was formed has the government asked the people their opinion. Successive governments have taken it upon themselves to transfer powers to the EU without reference to the wishes of the electorate. This is one promise that Cameron was unable to get out of.

    You would think that less power in parliament would mean less need for government or lower salaries, you would be wrong. Salaries have risen faster than almost any sector, bar banking and charities. it is true that, finally, the government is looking to cut the number of MP’s.

  • Adam S

    What a fascinating perspective on the Brexit debate. Isolationism from Europe since 1475 and confusion since the end of the 2nd World War. Problem we have seen from Scottish question is that referenda do not solve issues. Will Brexit people accept a 51% majority or will we suffer for the next 50 years?

  • Charlie R

    It is unfortunate that the so-called “informed” debate to date seems low on fact and high on emotion and riven with hyperbole and a noticeable lack of impartiality from the BBC (no surprise there) and £9.3m on a leaflet drop may only serve to drive the undecideds into the Brexit camp. However what was meant to be economic nirvana appears to be lurching towards inexorable unelected federalism which in the current climate is totally unacceptable – it seems that the 1982 vintage has his finger on the pulse to a greater extent than the 1984

    vintage – Discuss!

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