Great Britain: Torn between European and Anglo-Saxon identity

Article published on Jan. 30, 2007
community published
Article published on Jan. 30, 2007

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Great Britain is known for being at times less than enthusiastic approach to European integration. Opting out of the single European currency was hardly an encouraging sign to the continent that Britain was serious about the Union. What seems to be the problem? Do the British not feel European?
Are they spiritually and culturally closer to other Anglo-Saxon countries, such as the United States, Canada or Australia? Can the British as a nation honestly speak of having a European identity?

Great Britain is only now fully emerging from the effects of the decline of its empire. Following the Cold War and the rise of a new world order, Britain has been searching for a sense of belonging and a new role it can feel comfortable in. Despite the decline of its empire, Britain still retains strong ties to most of its former colonies. The Commonwealth organisation, although more of a symbolic organisation than anything else, links former colonies together and many of those countries still acknowledge the Queen as their Head of State, including Australia and Canada. In addition, the much commented on special relationship with the United States of America consists not only of a political component, it also has a strong cultural and social element. Great Britain is more receptive to media from Anglo-Saxon countries, it imports nearly all of its foreign television programmes from the US and much of its cultural life is shaped by trends coming from America. Furthermore, the language connection is impossible to overlook. The geographical drawback of being an island has other profound psychological implications for the British identity. The effects of this situation are that Britain has remained virtually untouched by revolution and radical change over the centuries, in a way that its European neighbours have not. Thus arguably, the British are not as receptive to ‘changing things’ clinging to their 1000 year political history. Even now the British people cannot and don’t travel or intersperse as well and as easily as their counterparts in mainland Europe. If indeed they had land borders with several other European states, the feeling of European identity would be stronger between the British and other European peoples.

So can the British still assert a European identity and stake a claim to European citizenship. I believe they can, however, the true nature of British European-ness is obscured by a lot of the Europhobe rhetoric in the press and on the street, but British perception of Europe often differs wildly from the reality. The British are by default European from a geographic standpoint. The United Kingdom is part of the European continent, thus we are all European. However, everyday language does often not reflect that fact. The Brits habitually refer to “going to Europe”, when in fact they mean visiting the European mainland. Much of this feeling stems from a policy of ‘splendid isolation’ which characterised British foreign politics for centuries. Therefore, we need to look further than a purely geographic reason for European Britishness. What we need to look for is a cultural and social convergence of values and interests, something that would characterise the Brits’ common points with the other peoples of Europe. The European Union’s stance on European identity is “unity in diversity” as for instance there is no common language among the peoples of Europe. Such a common language which is part of the bond between the British and the Americans, would help develop a European identity. But the British do hold common values with their friends in Europe. A commitment to democracy, human rights, social welfare and environmental protection are central to British as well as European Union concerns. Britain has worked towards making the operation of the European Union more transparent and has been leading in the creation of the European Rapid Reaction Force. However European identity is not to be found solely in the European Union, even if it has increasingly been associated strongly with the Union in anti-European discussion. Thus, Britain played its part in taking responsibility for stability in Europe through its joint leadership of the Kosovo war , as well as its commitment to peace on the Balkans. And perhaps this is where the real difficulty lies in finding the European identity of the British people. Discussion which equate a sense of European identity to an absolute commitment to the European Union is bound to leave certain parts of the population unsatisfied. This is what can be observed in British public discourse. But the European Union is not the only expression of Europe, even if it is planning to expand to cover those countries which include the ‘real Europe’, and it can often appear to be remote and bureaucratic. The danger is that the negative aspects of the European Union are associated with Europe. Whenever negative European issues came to the fore in the British press, the ‘splendid isolation’ sentiment provides protection. This needs to be countered to foster the European identity in Britain

Britain is torn between its special connection with America and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world and its newer commitment to Europe. It is probably fair to say that the Anglo-Saxon component of its identity still has quite a strong influence, but this does not mean that the European identity is non-existent. The British do feel European, but not quite in the same way as their European counterparts, whose geographic proximity has allowed a deeper interconnection to evolve. Maybe it could be said that the British have a secondary or complementary European identity, while the national image remains primary. The Anglo-Saxon link can be seen as a part of the primary identity. As Europe plays an ever greater part in British lives, as the European Union asserts itself more and more on the world stage, the secondary identity will grow and become more natural for the British people. But the ‘splendid isolation’ syndrome will prevent that from happening as fast as in other European countries.