Philip Cunliffe – We Already Had Empire 2.0: it’s Called the EU

Claims persist that voters backed leaving the EU out of nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past. In reality it is Remainers who most bemoan Britain’s post-Brexit loss of standing, reflecting the fact that the EU was long seen as a new form of “empire”, capable of extending British influence after its colonies gained independence.

Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent.

Cross-posted from The Full Brexit

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“Empire 2.0” has become the phrase of choice to capture all the delusion, conceit and disarray that has accompanied British diplomacy since the Brexit referendum in 2016. Tellingly, the supposedly disastrous implications of Brexit have led to comparisons with the 1956 Suez and 2003 Iraq crises – the two great episodes of imperial humiliation and defeat for Britain over the last fifty years. Although “empire 2.0” was coined by anonymous civil servants mocking the pretensions of their political masters rather than offered as an actual post-Brexit political vision, the phrase has stuck. In this view, Brexit is the empire reloaded.

To be sure, there is plenty of evidence of nationalist posturing and preening in British politics today, from the empty vanity of “Global Britain” proclaimed by Prime Minister Theresa May, through the farce of sending HMS Albion to the South China Sea, to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamsons’ ridiculous claims of Britain as a global superpower.  Yet all of this begs the question of the alternative international vision embodied in the status quo, that is, in Britain’s membership of the European Union [EU]. What is it about membership of the EU that washes away Britain’s imperial past, and makes its foreign policy today less toxic? This is rarely made clear.

The assumption seems to be that simply being part of a multilateral organisation is the opposite of imperialism – while being outside the EU is necessarily a marker of a return to imperialism. But the same academic leftists who sneer about Empire 2.0 will, in the next breath, bemoan the loss of Britain’s global standing, influence and prestige that will attend leaving the EU.[1] On the one hand, Remainers deride Leave voters as nostalgic imperialists. On the other hand, they remain deeply attached to the extra clout that EU membership gives Britain. An outside observer could be forgiven for being confused: those who most vociferously attack their opponents as imperialists are the same ones who are horrified by the prospect of Britain sliding down the international hierarchy of power and prestige. How is it possible to reconcile the two?

The truth is that when discussed in relation to Brexit, the charge “imperialism” is nothing to do with actual relations of power and national independence in the world today: imperialism is another way of charging Brexit voters with being parochial, another way of accusing them of being selfish racists. If Remainers were concerned about imperial power in world politics today, they might make an effort to discuss politics across the Channel, in Europe. That the EU is itself an imperial polity is entirely accepted and familiar in scholarly debates, albeit the EU is closer to a latter-day incarnation of the Holy Roman Empire, a neo-medieval multiplex, rather than a European overseas colonial empire. Oxford professor Jan Zielonka described the EU as a “benign empire in action”; the French finance minister Bruno le Maire openly called for the EU to become a “peaceful empire” (is there any other kind?). [2] Euro-enthusiasts constantly declaim on the necessity for Europe to unite so that it can face down Russia and jostle for world power alongside China and the US.

Ironically, all those radical journalists and academic leftists who decry the prospect of a post-Brexit foreign policy express an impeccably Anglocentric view of empire – empire is something that happens in places like India and Africa. They remain either ignorant or unconcerned by the prospect of empire in Europe, even as the EU has established itself as a postmodern prison-house of peoples in the Balkans, its neo-imperial efforts lauded by Tony Blair’s former adviser Robert Cooper as “voluntary imperialism” and “cooperative empire”.[3] The EU is now spreading its imperial influence from the Balkans to Africa, with what can only be described as a neo-colonial effort in Libya to transform the war-ravaged country into a giant holding pen for African migrants.

Aside from the EU itself, for the pro-European wing of the British elite including the left as well, the EU and its precursors has always been seen as a way of staving off British imperial decline.  As Richard Tuck’s research into British accession to the European Economic Community in the 1970s shows, membership of this proto-EU was seen as a way of maintaining British power in the aftermath of empire.  This was articulated by Con O’Neill, Britain’s Ambassador to the EEC at the time, who argued that without membership of the proto-EU

we can decline again to what was for so long our proper place: but if we choose this course [of not joining the EEC] I feel we must be prepared for the decline to be rather rapid. In particular, I feel that unless we succeed in creating a satisfactory relationship with Europe we may have declined in a relatively short time into neutrality … a greater Sweden.[4]

Membership of the proto-EU was seen as helping to stave off the prospect of Britain becoming a middling, Scandinavian-style social democracy. As was subsequently noted by Richard Crossman, a member of Harold Wilson’s cabinet at the time, what he called the “Swedish line of socialism” was seen to be the opposite of entry into the Common Market, which was seen as necessary to allow Britain to maintain its imperial presence East of Suez.[5]

There is a long tradition on the British left, stretching right back to the Fabians in the early twentieth century, of seeing empire as a means of vaulting over the parochialism of the nation-state directly to a proto-world government, in which they themselves would of course have free rein to redesign the world around their schemes of global order. Today, it is the Euro-empire rather than the British Empire that is seen as the means of leaping over the democratic messiness of national sovereignty to a transnational future in which these new Fabians imagine themselves grandly reordering the world.[6] When they deride Britain’s efforts to maintain its global position outside the EU what they are really saying is that such efforts are futile, not that they are objectionable. What horrifies the radical intelligentsia about Brexit and the decline of the EU is the prospect of what the post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty called the “provincialization of Europe” – the downgrading of Europe on the world stage.[7]

Any genuine anti-imperialist would have been heartened to see Mrs May – who, among her many other assaults on civil liberty while she was Home Secretary, made her name by persecuting South Asian students – grovelling before a democratically-elected Indian prime minister, pleading for trade deals from a former colony as a result of Brexit. But the radical academics and journalists are not internationalists at all. For them, anti-imperialism is not about the reality of power and self-determination in international politics, but a cudgel to wield against democracy in their own countries. Imagining that working class voters in deindustrialised towns and marginal communities were fondly reminiscing about the Raj when they cast their vote to leave the EU is one of the worst slanders against democracy. The fact that a third of Britain’s ethnic minority citizens voted to leave the EU seems to be of no consequence – for who needs such trivia as polling data when there are “racialized genealogies” to construct and “methodological whiteness” to expose? [8]

Seeing Brexit as a prolongation of British imperialism belongs to a long tradition among the British middle classes of rebuking working class voters for their selfish concerns with such trivial matters as their own wages, public services and infrastructure. Instead, they should overcome their parochialism and fall in line behind the middle classes’ desire to strut about the world stage, vying with Russia, solving African poverty and defending global rights. Decolonial academics would do well to re-read their Frantz Fanon, who predicted a long time ago how the politics of fear would play out in Brexit Britain: “When a colonialist country, embarrassed by a colony’s demand for independence, proclaims with the nationalist leaders in mind: ‘If you want independence take it and return to the Dark Ages,’ the newly independent people nod their approval and take up the challenge.” [10]

We already have empire 2.0 – it’s called the EU, and it high time that we consign it where it belongs – with the British Empire, to the history books.


[1] See Alex Colas, “The Internationalist Disposition”, The Disorder of Things, 4 January 2019.

[2] Zielonka, cited in Perry Anderson, The New Old World (London: Verso, 2011), p. 117.

[3] Cooper, cited in ibid, p. 68. For Bruno Le Maire, see Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “France calls for EU ‘empire’ and warns of euro break-up in next crisis”, Daily Telegraph, 12 November 2018.

[4] See further Richard Tuck, Letters to the Left on Brexit, 2016-18, pp. 34-35.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See e.g., Lea Ypi, “There is no left-wing case for Brexit: 21st century socialism requires transnational organisation”, LSE Brexit Blog, 21 December 2018.

[8] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[9] “BAME to blame: How minorities got it so wrong”, The New European, 12 November 2017.

[10] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth [London: Penguin, 1963] pp. 96-97.

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