Britain had a global empire more powerful and influential than any other in the modern world. Now it is condemned for withdrawing from a transitory, illusory organization fraught with seismic internal contradictions and inconsistencies, the European Union. The emerging conventional wisdom is that Britain made a terrible mistake because it needs Europe to survive. The story goes, without Europe, Britain is nothing.
Not so. Europe is the past. Europe is racked by demographic decline and economic irrelevance. Those nations in Europe with high fertility are propped up by unsustainable welfare policies. One solution might be immigration, but Europe views immigrants with dread, fear and prejudice. Europe has run out of ideas and the EU is a form of isolationism unlike anything in modern history.
The main problem with escapist Europe is that it is the old world, a world that is far away from contemporary dynamism, which is in Asia. In fact, Asia was always the key, which helps explain why the British, Dutch, French, Germans and Portuguese pursued exploration and empire in the East. Some would argue that these empires deliberately stalled economic development in the East so Europe would prosper.
There is some merit to this view. Many wait for the day when the history of Asia will be written by a new generation of historians not blinded or funded by a Eurocentric world view. There is a growing dissatisfaction in the region over the way the West understands and interprets the East. What has changed is this. In the past, Asia had no choice but to accept the terms imposed by the West. Those days are gone. Now Asia sets the terms. Europe, it seems, would rather hide than negotiate as an equal.
No one in Asia really paid much attention to Britain’s departure from the EU until it happened. The compliant, acquiescent, obedient, Brussels-friendly expectation for Britain was always out of character for the head of the Commonwealth of Nations. Without the EU, many believe Britain is now nothing, adrift in a world of despair, cut off from the nirvana of endless European expenditure, left to fend for itself. The manta of European triumphalism sits uncomfortably with the debacle of Greece and the burdens of a growing membership.
Let us talk about the “Europeans.” Most of them are from countries that benefit financially from the European welfare state. That’s fine. He who pays the piper calls the tune. But beyond this is another group, the Euro-fanatics. They want to liberate Europe from national differences and distinctions and impose conformity. Their vision is a Europe without nations and without religion. Euro-fanatics pretend they hold to no particular faith but are content to condemn those who do. The freedom to believe, freedom to think are the first to go in the Europe of the future. This Euro-fanaticism contains the seeds of another Holocaust. All the wealth of the European gravy train will not be enough to extinguish the prejudice and hatred that come from the human heart.
Let’s be frank. Europe is funded by the Germans, run by the French, broken by the Greeks, deserted by the British. Everyone hates the Turks and ignores the Italians. There is no Europe. It is a myth. This illusion is held together by promises of subsidies and handouts that stem from an outdated welfare state. This thinking caused the crisis in Greece. On its current myopic, inward-looking, religious-hating, immigrant-fearing trajectory, Europe will not end well. Britain is wise to leave with its soul intact.
Let us turn to Asia. Until World War II, Britain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands had empires in Asia. Some colonies dated back hundreds of years. Many of these places such as Hong Kong, Macau, India and even Australia and New Zealand bear witness to traditions, values, institutions and histories that speak of a richness of European interaction with this growing and dynamic region.
Not all of it was positive. Many mistakes were made and in some cases much blood was spilled for narrowly defined imperial interests. But it is hard to visit Asia and not see some of the qualities of the old world. There was boldness in their ambition. It was a world before the internet and convenience. They traveled across the globe for adventure, faith and profit. Whatever their motives, these men and women were visionaries who saw a world beyond the contours and constraints of Europe and a world beyond the confines of race or creed.
Britain isn’t doing anything new and owes no fealty to Europe. There was a time when the Church of Rome ruled the West. England was tied to the Holy Roman Empire with unbreakable cords of subservience until Henry VIII broke free of a corrupt medieval system. True, it fell to his daughter Elizabeth to finish the job, but this ushered in the rise of Britain, the first industrial nation and an Empire greater than Spain and Portugal combined. There has always been tension in England between ancient loyalties and a desire to appease Europe. Dare I speak of Celtic Christianity and Lindisfarne versus Augustine of Canterbury? Or shall we go back further to the time of myth and legend?
No empire lasts forever, though memories of the past linger well into the future and we live with the consequences. Those who put their faith and trust in the EU will also find that it is an illusion. Nations or tribes, for all their faults are destined to remain. The fiction of Europe will never overcome these contradictions. A Europe that looks away from the East is not really Europe, for the West needs the East, perhaps now more than any time in history.
Michael Sutton is a visiting fellow to the WTO Research Center at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.
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