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The International Relations Series: Island Identity in the Age of Globalisation

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The purpose of the upcoming series of International Relations articles is to explore why countries and international organisations behave in the way they do such as:

  • The NATO alliance and its expansion eastwards towards Russia.
  • The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
  • Xi Jinping’s vision through the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Benefits or consequences of the European Union becoming more federal.
  • Djibouti’s hosting of naval bases of various foreign powers.

This first piece, shall start at home and so look at the UK and its adopted identity on the global stage (which is currently in a state of flux).
GeographyIt first needs to be noted that Geography plays a large role in determining the stance a nation takes in its foreign affairs. For example, Czarist Russia and Communist Russia, despite being ideologically polar, faced the same flatlands west of Moscow. This geographical factor made territorial inroads by opposing forces more likely and easy. Thus, attack as the best form of defence was the military stance adopted by both states. Meanwhile, for the United Kingdom, it is the English Channel which distances itself from continental Europe. Over centuries, policymakers have consequently adopted an island identity. An identity in which the outlook is global however, how they actually become global varies from time to time.

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The UK’s Global Outlook: Worldwide ApproachFor the British Empire, the world’s oceanic space was a place where distance was obsolete and London was effectively as close to Calcutta as Calais. This meant that it was in the interest of the UK to influence what occurred in the high seas. Simultaneously, policymakers in London historically were encouraged to maintain a detachment from European events whilst ensuring a balance of power on the continent. This would prevent any potential invasion of the British Isles. This island identity has endured beyond the empire; how to be global however has until recently been achieved through having a seat in the EU.


The UK’s Global Outlook: European ApproachFollowing the Nice European Council summit in 2000, the Labour Party hailed the agreement reached to enlarge the EU. It allowed British business to benefit from access to an enlarged Single Market of over 500m consumers (the world’s largest economic area). A larger EU meant having the union’s borders closer to Russia and the middle east. The UK’s role in the agreement illustrated the strength they had in the EU and that this would deepen further. The global vision was best achieved with a seat on the EU table. The Labour Party’s front bench have always seemed to have maintained an attitude of general Euro-enthusiasm coupled with support for the US alliance.


The UK’s Global Outlook: Scepticism of the European ApproachMany conservative politicians, back benchers and front benchers in recent years have viewed entanglement with a growing European project with scepticism. They viewed this as a betrayal of the island identity by being submerged into a deepening European proto-superstate; a superstate that arguably deems to favour the Franco-German axis. The cause of this entanglement is due to a defeatist management of decline following the end of the empire and the lines of communication with its colonies. This is despite accusation from the Labour Party of the Conservatives seeking ‘unsplendid isolation’, ‘self- congratulation, schadenfreude and a hint of imperial delusion’.

Concerns have been raised about the long-term feasibility of the integrationist project championed by Brussels. This is partly due to the response of several European nations to militant Islamism and the flow of refugees and migrants from the near east and beyond the Mediterranean. Different reactions by different EU countries to these various aspects illustrated the lack of consensus among member stated.

Further more, since the financial crash, austerity measures have been imposed by the predominantly northern European countries to southern European nations such as Greece. This has resulted in further cracks in the edifice of the ‘family of Europe’ (Prisoners of Geography).


The UK’s Global Outlook: Return to of the Worldwide ApproachAll of the above plus many further reasons discussed in the media has dominated politics in recent years and culminated with Brexit. Under the current Conservative government, the view is that Brexit ensures the balance between insularity from Europe and a global outlook. For them, the identity remains global but shall be achieved with a worldwide approach, rather than just a European one.

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Whether this shall succeed time will tell. In the short term however, the British government will need to delicately keep its own house in order and intact. In the long term, the UK is expected to re-emerge as an economic rival to the EU. Currently, strict prudential rules attempt to thwart regulatory arbitrage preventing an individual member state having an unfair advantage. However, in order to differentiate itself and compete economically, the UK may now feel that it is not obliged to be held to the same standards. So how the UK balances between adopting a worldwide approach whilst not antagonising its closest neighbour remains to be seen.


By Yusuf Takoliya

Jargon Buster:

NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization: an intergovernmental military alliance between 29 North American and European countries.
Belt and Road Initiative: To connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks with the aim of improving regional integration, increasing trade and stimulating economic growth.
Czarist Russia: In reference to the Russian Empire from 1721 till 1917. Czars was a title used to designate East and South Slavic monarchs or supreme rulers of Eastern Europe.
Communist Russia: Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the largest and most populous of the Soviet socialist republics of the Soviet Union (USSR) from 1922 to 1990.
Regulatory Arbitrage: Firms capitalise on loopholes in regulatory systems in order to circumvent unfavourable regulations.

Sources:

  • The Island Race: Ontological Security and Critical Geopolitics in British Parliamentary Discourse. (Nick Whittaker)
  • Page x Introduction, Prisoners of Geography
  • For examples of this type of thought from beyond Britain, see Demangeon (1925) and
  • Schmitt (1942, 1950)
  • Douglas Alexander- Former British Labour politician
  • Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall Page 97

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