Breaking up is hard to do. And it is even worse when the partners do not know what they want. The United Kingdom cannot agree on whether it wishes to retain access to the EU single market if possible, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond suggests, or sail off into some global nirvana of separate trade deals with the rest of the world, as the country’s international trade minister, Liam Fox, wishes. Likewise, Europe is seemingly confused about whether it wants to punish the United Kingdom for leaving or stay friends. Small wonder there is now talk that Brexit may not be completed before the end of 2019.

And it is even harder to separate if one gets the language wrong. As the United Kingdom prepares to “divorce” the EU, many believe that the country will be “adrift” and made “irrelevant,” as so many historians predicted in a letter that then-Chancellor George Osborne asked them to sign in May 2016, a month before the referendum. The United Kingdom has “left the club,” others say, and consequently cannot expect to “use [the EU’s] facilities” or to express any views on the future of European integration.

Although it is true that the United Kingdom should expect some serious short- to medium-term economic disruption, these claims reveal a complete misunderstanding of the historical roots and geopolitical realities of the current European order.

If Brexit is to be managed amicably, there must be clarity about the nature of the existing relationship. The United Kingdom is not divorcing the EU, because it was never married to the Europeans in the first place. If such a relationship exists, it is between the nations of the United Kingdom, ratified by the Act of Union in 1707. Moreover, eurozone members themselves are not united in any meaningful sense of the word, as they are not linked through a political union.

At most, continental Europeans are cohabiting, and they are confused about which rights have now accrued to whom. They need to regularize their relationship as quickly as possible by forming a full political union to support the common currency and the common defense and to enable a common parliamentary representation.

Brexiters must accept that if they wish to leave the EU without chaos, they must first see mainland Europe sorted out. In short, British Prime Minister Theresa May must ensure that the European Union, or at least the eurozone, becomes the kind of club that Britons will not want to rejoin and would not have joined in the first place.

Moreover, if the EU is a “club,” then the two founding members were, in extremely different ways, Germany and the United Kingdom. The club is best understood as a youth group in a dire era. It was devised after 1945 to keep the Germans off the streets and out of trouble. It was also designed to allow them to engage in constructive activities, not least the defense of Western Europe against communism through the provision of economic prosperity.

Despite having been given a badge for good behavior by the Nobel Committee, the EU did not keep the peace. Peace was restored by the Grand Alliance in 1945 and protected thereafter by NATO, whose most important European member was, and is, the United Kingdom. As Europe’s principal military power, a member of the nuclear club, and the world’s fifth largest economy, the British remain the guardians of the entire continental order.

This makes the fabled Article 50, which is supposed to regulate departures from the EU, irrelevant to the two principal European powers. Try to imagine Germany’s invoking article 50, and thus leaving the broader continental framework, which was specifically designed to contain the country. Would that really be just a legal negotiation in which Portugal or Ireland would have a voice but not the departed UK? Surely it would be a more profound geopolitical issue on which all the main actors, especially London, would need to be consulted.

As Brexit unfolds, the United Kingdom will have some serious questions for the remaining members of the European club. The EU has not managed to secure its borders very well, and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa continue to stream through Europe in the hope of reaching Britain. The United Kingdom will remind the Europeans that most of them are not paying their relatively modest security dues of 2 percent of GDP to NATO. And just as the EU will warn the United Kingdom that it cannot cherry-pick, Britain will tell the EU that it cannot expect the British military—the lead European power deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Baltic—to do the dirty work of protection and then refuse to let Britain share in the economic benefits that the wider EU enjoys thanks to those protections.

There is, though, a deal that would take into consideration all these geopolitical realities. The United Kingdom would continue to pay into Europe by contributing to NATO through higher security spending. In return, the United Kingdom would recover sovereignty through the right to set its own immigration targets, while retaining access to a confederally managed Single Market, including the all-important (to the City of London) bank passporting. In or out of the EU, Britain remains a major European power, and there needs to be a new political architecture for the continent that reflects that.

This arrangement, and indeed Brexit generally, requires a simultaneous establishment of a full eurozone political union. The failure to offset Brexit in this way would cause political and economic storms across mainland Europe, which could carry over the channel. Furthermore, in any new referendum on independence, Scotland will need clarity about what sort of European Union it would be joining (or remaining in). Meanwhile, in Britain, unless the rest of the EU becomes a full political union—which only a tiny minority of UK remainers want—a substantial proportion of the electorate will continue to hanker for renewed British membership. 

We are left therefore with a series of quandaries. British Europhiles must realize that the best service they can render the EU and themselves is to help effect a full eurozone political union of which they themselves will not be a part. Brexiters must accept that if they wish to leave the EU without chaos, they must first see mainland Europe sorted out. In short, British Prime Minister Theresa May must ensure that the European Union, or at least the eurozone, becomes the kind of club that Britons will not want to rejoin and would not have joined in the first place.

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  • BRENDAN SIMMS is the author of Britain’s Europe. A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation, Allen Lane, London, 2016
  • More By Brendan Simms