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Prisoners of Geography?
17 Jun, 2020

George Stevenson reviews Prisoners of Geography, a book by Tim Marshall, in which the author takes a jaundiced view of the EU, claiming that the USA is united in the way the different sovereign countries of the EU will never be.

Andrew claims that the citizens of the USA feel ‘American’, whilst EU citizens will never have the same feelings towards the EU.

This, of course, ignores the immense goodwill and desire to work together that has led to its many achievements over the past decades. But his central argument, that countries are inevitably influenced by their geography, is still powerful and relevant when we consider our own situation.

Speaking in 1934 about the dangers of appeasement, Winston Churchill said ‘There are those who say: Let us ignore the Continent of Europe. Let us leave it with its hatreds and armaments to stew in its own juice, to fight out its own quarrels. Let us turn our backs upon this alarming scene. Let us fix our gaze across the ocean and lead our own life in the midst of our peace-loving dominions and empire. There is much to be said for this plan, if only we could unfasten the British islands from their rock foundations and could tow them 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and anchor them safely upon the smiling coasts of Canada. I have not heard of any way in which this could be done.’

The circumstances may have changed, but there are still those who would like to turn their backs on Europe, and create an insular UK, either a free-market or socialist utopia. But we are still prisoners of our geography. Whether we like it or not, we will always be a collection of islands off the coast of mainland Europe. We cannot tow our islands out into the Atlantic - and short of relocating the whole population to the Falklands or St. Helena - there is no way of escaping this. Perhaps this should be the rejoinder to the spiteful comment ‘If you love Europe so much, why don’t you move there?’

Economically and culturally, we will always be closely linked to mainland Europe. Put simply, Paris, Frankfurt and Milan are all close; Washington, Mumbai and Beijing are far away. Whilst the current approach seems to be one of ‘differentiation’ from EU standards and rules, those who look longingly at these new markets, feeling that they will be more valuable than those closer to home, have yet to explain how they will overcome the constraints of geography. Geography means that there will always be more trade with those countries close by - in the rest of Europe.

Businesses trading there will have little choice but to comply with EU standards. If that’s the case, what’s the point of having separate products to different standards for smaller markets? And whilst a shared language gives the illusion of a common culture, there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm from the Anglophone world for treating the UK as special, or for feeling some sort of brotherhood. Notably that in the current pandemic crisis, our European partners have generally been quite supportive of the UK, when they would have every reason to ignore us.

So even if ‘differentiation’ is eventually implemented, it seems unlikely that it could ever have much effect. We have to hope that the current crisis will lessen the willingness to risk the economic pain that such an approach would bring. Alternatively, the price extracted by these other countries, in terms of loosening visa requirements, requiring the adoption of less stringent quality standards, or the opening up of public services to overseas private companies, could be so unpalatable that even a reckless government would be unwilling to risk them.

So either by default, or by deliberate decision, we will end up closely aligned to EU standards and rules. Once we have realised that we really cannot manage just by ourselves, may there also be a greater willingness to participate in pan-European initiatives and institutions? If that happens, it gives us an opportunity to secure further rapprochement to the rest of the EU, and to reduce the barriers which would otherwise be put up.

Travel arrangements could be made easier (after all, geography means that vastly more British people go on holiday to France or Spain than to America). This could lead to greater rights to live or study across the continent. Perhaps reciprocal immigration requirements could be eased. Bit by bit, we could start to secure some of the rights which we have lost. And in the longer term, perhaps a majority would feel comfortable with full-scale participation in what will by then be a changed EU.

It will still be a fight, and there are many other challenges in the world now, but geography could just be our greatest ally.

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.