Leaving the EU Part 1: What can history teach us about the possible outcomes of Brexit? 

There is a lot of confusion in the UK about what Brexit means and what the implications will be for the country over the next few years and decades beyond.  For some, those that opted to vote remain, leaving the European Union is an act of great folly, which will cause untold damage to the citizens of Britain living both in the UK and in the European Union.  For others, who achieved the impossible by persuading enough voters to leave the European Union, Brexit is a dream fulfilled.  By being disconnected from the European Union, Britain can embark on a great new adventure that will bring both independence and prosperity.  Now that the UK has voted to leave, however, neither side has a clear view as to what Brexit will mean in the medium to long term.

What happens when a smaller country leaves a larger country or supranational entity or empire? In this article, History Future Now has selected examples from different time periods and different parts of the world to find parallels that might help provide some guidance to the politicians and negotiators both in the European Union and in the United Kingdom.

We are going to start with the Ionian Revolt that kicked off in 499BC and will end up with the collapse of communism and the independence of eastern Europe in the 1990s.  We will narrow the examples down to countries that are smaller in physical size, economy and population to the country or supranational entity that they are leaving.  To put this in context, the UK has a land area of about 244,000 square kilometres, vs the European Union’s total land area of 4.4 million square kilometres, so about 5.5%.  The UK has a much bigger population relative to its land area at 60 million of the 500 million people in the European Union, or about 12% of the population.  The UK economy is bigger still.  In 2015 its GDP was €2.6 trillion per year vs €14.7 trillion per year for the total of the EU, making it about 18% of the EU’s GDP.

History Future Now has looked for a number of examples which can be divided into the following broad categories, which we will explore in a series of articles:

  1. Failed independence from the perspective of both sides – Part 1
  2. Failed independence from the perspective of the seceding side – Part 2
  3. Successful independence, from the perspective of one or both sides – Part 3

These lessons are not just relevant for the UK and Brexit, but also for Scotland contemplating independence from the UK, Catalonia contemplating independence from Spain and Taiwan seeking to formalise its de facto independence from mainland China.

Failed independence from the perspective of both sides

We start with three examples where nothing turns out right for both the parties seeking independence and the entity from whom they are seeking independence.  Both sides were ultimately losers: the Ionian Revolt from the Persian Empire starting in 499BC, the split between the West and East Roman Empire in 284AD and the split between the Confederate State of America and the United States of America in 1860.

The Ionian Revolt

Most of what we know about the 499-493BC Ionian revolt, which was between the Greek city states on the western coat of what is now modern Turkey – Ionia- and the relatively new Persian empire, comes from the father of history,  Herodotus.

The cities of Ionia had been conquered in 560BC by the Lydian king Croesus (he of “as rich as Croesus” fame).  Twenty years later the Persians arrived on the scene and, led by Cyrus the Great, conquered Lydia and took over the Ionian city states.  Cyrus ruled the Ionian Greeks through the use of tyrants, powerful Ionian Greek rulers who wielded huge amounts of power.  The tyrants were never popular.  They had to both keep the Persians, who had given them power, and the Greeks, over which they ruled and who hated the Persians, happy.

The origins of the revolt involve a complex mix of characters back stabbing and betraying each other. What you need to know is that the charismatic leader of the city of Miletus, Aristagoras, managed to not only get all of the other Ionian cities to join him in the revolt but also persuaded the Athenians, who had recently kicked out their own tyrant and had replaced him with a democratic government, to join in the fight, claiming that defeating the Persians would be easy.

It was not.  The Athenians were pushed back and quickly abandoned the Ionian Greeks. The Persians successfully commanded a fleet and army that systematically captured the rebelling cities, including Miletus.   Many of the cities were destroyed, the populations put to the sword or sent into permanent exile and women and young boys were sold into slavery. The revolt was over.  Not a great result for the Ionians.

But the unexpected consequences of the revolt were just starting.  Persia, which had hereto ignored the Geeks on the other side of the Aegean, felt threatened.  It would then lead a series of wars against the mainland Greeks.   Athens and Sparta, with their many allies, pushed the Persians back.  Eventually Athens would become the dominant force in the new world order as it persuaded enough Greek city states and islands to join it in an anti Persian league.  This then helped trigger the Peloponnesian War – as recounted by both Herodotus and the even more brilliant Thuycidides – as Sparta felt threatened by the upstart city of Athens, which ended in the mutual destruction of both Athens and Sparta as leading powers, leading to the eventual rise of Philip of Macedonia and his more famous son, Alexander the Great.  Alexander would end up conquering the Persian empire, before his eventual early death in Babylon in 323BC.

The Persians were perplexed by the Ionian revolt.  What was the point of independence? Life under Persian rule was relatively easy. The economies of Ionia were doing very well and were well integrated into the much larger Persian empire.  The cities of Ionia were all much wealthier than those on the Greek mainland.  Sure, the Greeks did not have “independence” but someone had to be in charge.  Was there a big difference being ruled by a Greek tyrant or a Persian Satrap?   After the revolt the Persians were lenient to their recalcitrant subjects.  Eventually the Ionians would be ruled by another emperor, Alexander the Great, who was no better to the Ionian Greeks than the Persians had been.

The revolt was ultimately a failure for the Ionians, who had sought and failed to gain independence, the Athenians and then the Spartans who had initially come to the aid of the Ionians before fighting each other in multi generational war to the death and the Persians who would eventually be taken over by the ultimate victors, the Macedonians.

The lesson here is one of unintended consequences. The Ionians were persuaded by Aristagoras into seeking independence from an entity that was very benign, at least in the context of the time.  Prior to Aristagoras’ conversion to becoming a freedom fighter there was no strong pressure from the Ionian Greeks for independence. What they got was devastation and enslavement and eventually they fell under the yoke of another despotic empire under Alexander and his successors.  For the Persians a natural reaction to punish those that abetted the Ionians to revolt ended up in multiple defeats in the West which had knock on impacts on their perceived invincibility back in the east.  This would have consequences when Alexander the Great came to attack them over 100 years later.

This is a similar issue for both the EU and the UK over Brexit. While no-one will claim that the European Union is perfect, it does work reasonably well.  It has provided peace and unity over a continent that has been wracked by wars for hundreds of years.  Like the Ionians under Persian rule, Britain is rich and prosperous as part of the EU.  It has sacrificed some sovereignty in the process of being part of something greater – and far less sovereignty than was lost by American states to the US federal government. A break with the EU will result in consequences that are unimaginable.  Is the upside so high as to risk the possible downside?

Independence of the East Roman Empire from the rest of the Roman Empire  

Surprisingly little is taught in UK schools about the East Roman Empire, which would eventually become known as the Byzantine Empire.  This is a shame, as it is one of the most fascinating empires in human history and lasted in one way or another from 284AD the way until 1453AD.

In 284AD Diocletian, a Roman citizen who was born in what is now Croatia, became emperor of an empire that he considered too big to rule.  It stretched into Britain in the north west, Gaul and Spain in the far west, surrounded the entire Mediterranean and stretched deep into modern Turkey to the borders of Armenia.  So he split it up in to four parts.  These four parts would then be governed by four rulers.  Diocletian held the most valuable part of the Roman Empire: Egypt to the south and all of the eastern Mediterranean, including what would eventually become Constantinople and the Black Sea coast.  His direct subordinate ruled what is now Greece and the Balkans up to the border of the Danube.  The rest of the empire, including Italy, which was absolutely not the most valuable part of the empire by this time, was split between another set of a junior and senior emperors.

Splitting the empire into four sounded like a great idea. It would make things easier to govern.  Armies would be more responsive to threats as they came up.  But it quickly descended into chaos as the four emperors and their successors fought each other for control of the entire empire.  This was eventually resolved by Constantine the Great, who defeated his rivals, reunified the empire under his sole control and became emperor from 306-337AD. He set up his new capital in the Greek city of Byzantium, which would eventually be renamed Constantinople.

The problem was that despite the fact that Constantine the Great had reunified the empire, the concept of dividing it up into four parts was out and had great appeal to ambitious men.  On his death the empire fell into four parts once again, with his sons and cousins dividing the empire up between them.  As with the period between Diocletian and Constantine, the entire empire descended back into civil war with brother killing brother and cousin killing cousin. This state of nearly permanent civil war would last until Emperor Valens became the emperor of the East in 364AD.  Thereafter, the emperors of the East mainly stuck to the east.  The Roman Empire was permanently divided between the West Roman Empire and the East Roman Empire in 395AD, though the occasional reconquest of western parts of the Roman empire would continue for over 200 more years.

The problem with the split was that it permanently weakened the Roman Empire.  The decades of fighting between emperors vying for control over other parts of the Roman Empire devastated the economy and encouraged mass recruitment of German immigrants to fight these wars on their behalf.  In some battles most of the soldiers on both sides would be ethnically German, including their most senior generals.  Eventually these German tribes of Franks, Goths and Vandals would turn on their Roman masters and would carve out their own countries within the Roman Empire.   Odoacer, a German, eventually usurped the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augusts, in 476AD.

The lesson here is that even a well planned and controlled split between parts of an empire have consequences, which in the case of the Roman Empire should have been more obvious.  Rome had been hit by civil wars many times in its past by powerful men who wanted more.  By formally creating relatively equal power bases with armies and a tax base to support them it would encourage those emperors to try and seek more power.

This is a key issue for the European Union in its negotiations with the UK on Brexit.  The assumption in Europe is that if the EU allows the UK to have a soft exit – the infamous “have your cake and eat it” option- it will encourage other EU countries to push for similar benefits and thus encourage the break up of the EU. Thus many European countries are pushing to punish the UK, to discourage others from following them. This might work.

However a hard Breixt is likely to backfire.   If the EU pushed for a hard break with the UK  the UK will have nothing to lose by trying to peel off like minded countries out of the European Union.  Britain faced a closed Europe under Napoleon and a closed Europe under Hitler.  On both occasions it prevailed.  It is not inconceivable for the UK to persuade other northern European protestant countries that a free trade zone with the UK might be preferable to remaining in the EU.  Denmark and Norway do not use the Euro, are ethnically and linguistically very similar and have similar business cultures.  Ireland has a historic relationship with the UK and the border with Northern Ireland is particularly problematic.  As the southern block of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece look more frail, Eastern block countries, such as Poland, which does not use the Euro, may also want to join some new extended Northern European Union.

While this would be a clever move for the UK, especially if it can bring in its former Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand into this alliance, ultimately a divided Europe will not be as strong as a united Europe.  For both the sake of the UK and the rest of the EU any system that keeps the UK as tied as possible to the EU would make more sense than forcing it to become a competitor.

Confederate States and Union States 

Between November 1860 and March 1861, after Abraham Lincoln had been elected the first Republican Party nominee for President but before he took office, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas seceded from the United States and declared themselves to be the sovereign nation of the Confederate States of America. Not the most auspicious start to the Lincoln Presidency.

But things got worse very quickly.  In April 1861 war broke out when the Confederate States attacked Fort Sumter.  Several more states and territories would secede and after four years of war about 700,000 American soldiers would be killed.

The Confederate States seceded because of the issue of slavery.  There were other reasons, but they were secondary and were fundamentally linked to the slavery issue.  The Confederate States were slave states.  To be clear, they did not secede because there was an immediate threat that slavery was going to be banned in the south as a result of Lincoln’s election.  That was not part of his manifesto.  They seceded because they feared for the future. The United States was expanding, westwards, thanks to the acquisition of lands by means of war, treaty and purchase.  The plan was that these lands, known as Territories, would eventually become independent states like the existing states within the United States of America.  The concern in the south was that if the US banned slavery in the new Territories then the balance between free states and slave states would eventually go against them.  At some point enough people would live in free states to overturn the balance of power between free states and slave states and the free state majority would call for the abolition of slavery in all of the United States.  This was a terrifying prospect for the south. It would not just be an economic disaster but could also be potentially dangerous – what would millions of black slaves do to their former masters who had repressed and abused them for generations?  This was not a theoretical issue:  in Haiti, not that long before, free black slaves had massacred every white French person on the island.

Beyond slavery the secondary issues were interesting too.  The south, with its cheap slave labour and ideal climate, was one of the lowest cost, high volume, cotton producers in the world.  It could compete with anyone on cheap cotton.  So it was very much in favour of free trade – the ability to sell cotton anywhere in the world.  The north, in contrast, was the manufacturing centre for the United States.  But its products could not compete with higher quality, lower cost, manufactured goods from Europe.  So it was keen on high tariffs to keep imported goods out.  In the 1860 election the Republican part ran on a platform of higher tariffs.  For this reason alone, it is not surprising that Lincoln did not win any states in the south in the 1860 election. These tensions exist in the European Union today.  Some countries would prefer higher tariffs to protect certain sectors of their economy. The UK’s global supremacy in financial services is akin to the South’s supremacy in cotton, which is why so many believe that the UK government will do anything to ensure a special deal for the financial services sector as part of Brexit.

Finally, there was the question of sovereignty, or States’ rights. When the United States was created it was a union of independent colonies who all had their own distinctive sovereignty, history and origin story; not too dissimilar to the member states of the European Union today. They had agreed to pool together resources in order to fight a war of independence from Britain.  After the war there was a significant struggle between those that wanted more centralised control, Federalists, and those that wanted to keep the states as autonomous as possible.  Ultimately, the Federalist side won, which brought about centralising institutions such as the Federal Reserve Bank, which assumed all of the individual state’s war debts, and the Federal City, quickly renamed Washington DC.  Yet again, these are issues that are similar to the tensions in the European Union today over debts in Greece and Italy and the impact on the European Central Bank and the creation of a pan European military force.

The Civil War ended in 1865.  After a period of “Reconstruction” the south re-emerged as a power block. While slavery was abolished, the lives of former African slaves and their descendants remained separate and unequal to the whites as the region developed a form of apartheid known as “Jim Crow”.  Politically the south never forgave the Republican party and the region was solidly in favour of the Democratic party until Democratic President Lyndon Johnson brought in the Civil Rights Act in 1964 which ended southern apartheid.  In retaliation for this betrayal of southern Democratic Party values, the entire region switched allegiance to the Republican Party, where it remains to this very day.

Interestingly, the population balance between the Confederate States and the Union States is not too dissimilar to that of the UK and the European Union. There were 5.6 million free people in the Confederacy and 22 million free people in the Union, 19% and 81%.  If you add in slaves the population balance was 29% and 71%.  That is not too far off the UK’s 12% and the EU’s 88% population balance.

The American Civil War was not a victory for either side.  Hundreds of thousands died.  It would have been better for it never to have happened.  While northerners did not like slavery their economy was never dependent on it and they were certainly not willing to fight to abolish it: most whites in the north were just as racist as the whites in the south.   After the Civil War hundreds of thousands of blacks fled north and tit for tat white on black race riots would frequently break out.  The south’s economy was based on slavery.  Slaves were the equivalent to plant and machinery today: they were machines that could produce low cost, high volume cotton.  They just happened to be people. Thus the north could understand the need for slavery but did not like the concept from a moral perspective.

It was secession, however, which pushed the country into a civil war. It is an interesting exercise in counterfactual history as to whether the north would have fought to keep the union intact – it was the Confederacy that attacked the north first, and not the other way around.   It is also clear that the United States would be permanently compromised by splitting into two countries.  It is possible that some form of war would have emerged at a later stage over possession of the new Territories.  North America would look more like Europe, with four large countries, Canada, the United States, the Confederate States and Mexico vying for power.  This would have significantly undermined the US’ ultimate emergence as a political, cultural, military and economic power.

And this is perhaps the lesson for the European Union and the UK today.  There is no slavery equivalent that is driving the split between Europe and the UK.  Indeed, one of the reasons why Brexit was such a surprise is that there was no significant divide between Europe and and the United Kingdom.   No-one was pressing for a split, except for a small minority within the UK’s Conservative Party.  Despite the differences that remain between the former Confederate States of America and the rest of America, it is indisputable that the US would be permanently weakened if the Confederate States had been successful in their bid for independence.

Next Time

Next time we will continue this article with a series of independence movements where secession was bad for the side that seceded and had little impact on the side that was left. The results are quite surprising.


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.

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.

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