by Lina Mareike Zopfs
Being stranded on a desert island is a familiar premise for many books, series and reality shows. The island is perceived as a motif of isolation, seclusion and refuge. It can be paradise and prison all at once. However, for some, living on an island also means feeling superior. Better, just because it’s different. Unique, just because you are surrounded by water, no borders attached.
In Britain, it is precisely this island mentality of distinction that influences the national self-image. In the Brexit election campaign, the Vote Leave campaign often cited the island state as an argument against the European Union. Yet, can the geographical location as an island, the natural border by water and beaches, really make such a difference? With Cyprus, Malta and Ireland, there are three other island states in the EU and none of them claim special treatment because of their exceptional disposition as an island nation. Why is the British island status so significant?
In geographical terms, Britain is the largest European island and nonetheless very close to the mainland. If you stand on the White Cliffs in Dover in the far south and look across the English Channel, you can get a glimpse of the French coast. Only 34 km of water separate the EU and the English coast at the narrowest point. With the Channel Tunnel, one could even speak of a land connection between France and the island. Nevertheless, even the French were once sceptical about whether Britain would fit into a European community. Twice in the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle blocked Britain’s entry into what was then the European Economic Community. In his 1963 speech, he justified his rejection with the British culture: Its maritime nature as an island, the ties to distant, diverse countries and its very own traditions would not be suitable for the young European project. 50 years later, David Cameron takes up the argument in his keynote speech about the EU. „It’s true that our geography has shaped our psychology. We have the character of an island nation: independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty.“ While the former prime minister still places the country within the EU in 2013, he repeatedly stresses the UK’s exceptional status and desire for sovereignty.
Nine months after Cameron’s speech, I moved to the South East of England. My university had a European focus and labelled itself ‚UK’s European university‘. At any opportunity they got, they had Europe written on their flag. In 2013, I didn’t think much of it. Now I see it partly as a statement against the UKIP stronghold in the neighbouring district of Thanet at the time. Not feeling European as a Brit does not directly correlate with a nationalist or Eurosceptic mindset though. To me it rather appeared as the norm in society. This was particularly palpable in the language. Airlines advertised flights to Paris, Berlin or Amsterdam with slogans like „Europe is closer than you think“. There was a whole discourse about how European British food is and articles were titled „The British in Europe“ when listing British literature set on the continent. This is confusing. Even without the EU, the United Kingdom is effectively part of Europe. However, for most Britons, the term Europe only refers to the continental part. Not the United Kingdom and not Ireland either, but everything on the other side of the English Channel. Yes, Europe, where you can have a nice holiday: ‚Weekend Getaways‘, on sunny beaches with horrible tea, fine wine and ‚continental breakfast‘. Continental Europe represents the other, something that is close, accessible and affordable, yet not too much like the UK. With Brexit, this has hardly changed. Especially in the academic context, Europe is receding into the background. You only find ‚UK’s European University‘ in the small print, as the focus has shifted towards internationality. At the same time, the interest in European Studies is declining, as is the number of European students on the island. Although they all wanted to stay in the EU, only one of my friends raised a personal concern after the referendum. He would probably lose the funding for his studio. I have never asked my friends how European they felt. I just assumed they did, maybe? However, they often discussed whether I could already pass of as British. Around the referendum, when people first met me, I was usually placed in the Commonwealth. Oscillating between South Africa and Australia, I had almost ‚made it‘. To be considered British was announced as the highest achievement.
In order to roughly understand where this appeal comes from, one has to look at their imperial past, as this is the origin of the hyperbolic national identity. Compared to most EU states, British democracy is centuries old and, as the mother of the Industrial Revolution, it brought progress and long-term prosperity to Europe. Around a hundred years ago, the small island was also the most major world power at the greatest expansion of the British Empire, ruling over a quarter of the world’s population at the time. Shortly afterwards, they stood alone against the Nazis in 1940: the finest hour of the English. All this, combined with the virtues of a true gentleman, distinguishes the British from war-torn nations on the continent and provides the basis for a bewildering sense of superior national identity.
But since 1945, Britain has not only lost the Empire, but also its status as a superpower, and the image of the „Brits Abroad“ could also be better. So the national identity has been in an existential crisis since the loss of the Empire and the EU hasn’t exactly helped rebuild it. Britain used to be best at winning wars and reigning over colonies. They were at the very top. With a superior government in Brussels, some suddenly felt themselves alienated and ‚colonised‘. The return to the island nation and the good old days of „splendid isolation“ was and is a patriotic, identitarian endeavour of the Brexit supporters. The logic is not very clever but here it goes: without the EU, we used to be somebody. Without the EU, we’re somebody again.
Of course, British history can be read differently and certainly, hopefully, many do. The achievements are not just distinctions that carve out a deeper channel of sea between the island and the continent. They are an inescapable connection, shared European history. If you just take look at the Royal Family, princes and princesses from continental Europe were married into it over centuries. Shakespeare’s plays are set in European cities and the population itself emerged mainly through European immigration of Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans in the first millennium AD. Hence, the population is originally European despite the frontier of water. Also, although the industrial revolution started in England, it occurred on a pan-European scale, much like the continental European colonial empires evolved alongside the British. Importantly, these aspects of European history ought to be at least critically reflected before being incorporated into the formation of any national identity. Industrialisation led to inhumane working conditions, child labour and mass poverty. Prosperity was reserved for factory owners and the colonial ruling class. The British Empire, like the German colonial empire, relied on systemic exploitation, oppression, discrimination, forced labour and slavery. Colonial history is fundamentally racist and should never be a positive attribute of national self-image. Yet for a part of the British, the Empire is still a source of national pride because they, a small island, have transformed the colonised countries into a „better place“ with their unparalleled work ethic and humanistic values.So the desire to return to their island identity is significantly driven by the nostalgic memory of a global racist empire. More seriously, the distorted, positive view of the past empire has been politically approved with Brexit, which only shows that racism and nationalism remain a structural problem in Britain.
This is particularly apparent in the politics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been delivering on his „Get Brexit Done“ promise for over a year now. At last, the EU no longer poses a threat to the beloved nation state for worried Eurosceptics: The exit is complete. The English Channel is once again a hard border and already the uncombed prime minister is proposing to build a bridge to France. Such a paradoxical proposal seems mocking just after the Brexit debate was fuelled during the refugee crisis with the argument that there is too much illegal migration through the Eurotunnel. Since the European „freedom of movement“ is restricted and Brussels cannot interfere in border policy anymore, island status no longer seems as crucial. For economic purposes, the border can be softened again, because now it is easier to send back all the refugees who are arriving more and more often in rubber dinghies. And we no longer have to worry about immigration from Eastern Europe. In 2015, a colleague in London told me that he was really pleasantly surprised at how nice the Romanian craftsman was. The work was flawless. For his part, this was chalked up to an exception. It was not enough to change a fundamentally racist world view. He wanted to leave the EU at all costs and have migration controlled. In the meantime, however, there is a shortage of thousands of workers in agriculture, construction and as lorry drivers. For its low-wage workforce, working conditions have deteriorated and the island’s appeal is waning. It is of little use that Boris Johnson is promoting a „Global Britain”. Instead of emulating the lost empire with island charm by becoming an economic superpower, Britain should fundamentally come to terms with its colonial past and form a new national identity that is not based on nostalgic national pride and an inhumane border policy of isolation. Yet this is not only a problem of the island, but also one of the EU, because most European states do not exactly shine with a far-reaching critical reappraisal of their colonial crimes. This makes us realise that even without the Union, Great Britain is a part of Europe. The English poet John Donne already knew this in 1624: „No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main„.