Nearly 60 years ago, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan launched Britain's bid to join what was then called the European Community, now the European Union. He saw no alternative but to go in with the Europeans, fearing otherwise Britain would be diminished, its global influence weakened.
Macmillan worried U.S. trade and investment inevitably would be drawn increasingly toward Europe and away from Britain, and that his country would lose major economic benefits by not being a member of the emerging bloc.
It took more than a decade for Britain to join the EC and nearly a quarter of that time to exit the bloc.
The initial applications, encouraged by U.S. administrations, were blocked by France's imperious Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who argued Britain wasn't European enough. And he told Macmillan that Britain was too obsessed with America and its Commonwealth of former colonies. The French leader feared once inside the bloc, Britain would prove disruptive and paralyze an inevitable advance toward greater European political unity.
Dubbed by the frustrated British establishment the "impossible ally," de Gaulle, who was as disparaging of the British as he was sniffy of the Americans, dashed the hopes of an exhausted Macmillan. The British prime minister saw EC membership as a crucial part of his so-called "grand design" to revive Britain's flagging economic and political fortunes and to avoid being squeezed by larger powers as it searched for a post-imperial role for itself.
By the time Britain did join — in 1973, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson — Macmillan had long retired, denied what he had hoped would be the great prize of his premiership. And de Gaulle was three years in the grave.
Echo from the past
But the same set of economic and geopolitical challenges that persuaded Macmillan, and his successors in Downing Street, of the necessity of joining the bloc will face the country after it exits— a remarkable and daunting echo from the past.
Macmillan feared the rise and assertiveness of China and Russia, the loss of the British colonies and how that would impact the floundering British economy and reduce its clout. He worried that the European bloc, then just six members but now 27 with a combined economic activity last year of $18.7 trillion, would easily dominate the offshore British Isles.
"The economic consequences to Britain may be grave," he wrote in a memorandum. "However bold a face it may suit us to put on the situation, exclusion from the strongest economic group in the civilized world must injure us," he wrote. Added to his fears was the predictability of Britain's relations with the United States, which had interests of its own, and "the uncertainty of American policies towards us — treated now as just another country, now as an ally in a special and unique category."
Fast forward to now, and despite the "bold" face being offered by Britain's Boris Johnson, who predicts great Brexit benefits for a buccaneering "global Britain," the country's dilemmas aren't dissimilar from those identified more than half a century ago by Macmillan, say historians.
Brexit poses the same questions Macmillan was asking himself in 1961 as he drafted his "grand design," shrugging off as he did so, and later disguising from the British public, the cost that would be incurred in terms of the dilution of sovereignty, if Britain joined the bloc.
How can post-imperial Britain remain a player on the world stage? How can it avoid being squeezed between the U.S. on the one hand and the Europeans on the other?
How can it boost its economy when historically it suffers low productivity and a shortage of skills in its native workforce? How can it attract foreign investment, if shut out of Europe's single market and denied tariff-free access?
"Brexit may well leave Britain marooned in its long-feared predicament: subject to the whims of larger powers," according to Luke Reader, a historian with Ohio's Case Western Reserve University. Britain has placed itself in "a geopolitical pickle" in a period of rising protectionism, he maintains. "It is reasserting itself as a nation-state at precisely the moment in which the world is reorganizing itself into powerful multi-national alliances and trading blocs," he wrote in a commentary for opinion-site The Conversation.
Earlier in January, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who is preparing what British officials say is the "deepest security review" ministers and officials have conducted since the end of the Cold War, raised a worry that wouldn't have been unfamiliar to Macmillan either. Wallace warned about placing all of Britain's security eggs in one basket, saying in an interview with The Times newspaper that Britain risked becoming too dependent on the U.S. militarily and that the interests of the two countries wouldn't always converge.
"We are very dependent on American air cover and American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. We need to diversify our assets," he said, adding Britain "must be prepared to fight wars without the United States as its key ally."
British officials hope, in spite of Brexit, Britain can maintain a strong defense and intelligence relationship with the EU, ensuring it has eggs in two baskets.
Role of France
Like the 1960s, all roads will lead through Paris as Britain negotiates its future relationship with the EU. Boris Johnson appears to hope that he can seal a deal which gives British exporters favorable access to the single market without having to comply with EU rules, regulations and product standards. Johnson has quipped in the past that Britain can "have its cake and eat it." That is going to be difficult.
Compliance with EU rules would defeat the purpose of Brexit, say Brexit hardliners in Johnson's ruling Conservative party. It would force Britain to be a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker, they say. Close regulatory alignment with the EU will complicate Britain's negotiations with the U.S. for a free trade deal — something U.S. President Donald Trump has made clear.
French President Emmanuel Macron will likely prove as prickly with Johnson as de Gaulle was with Macmillan in the forthcoming negotiations. The French leader seems determined that it will be the French eating cake, and not Johnson. He warned Wednesday that France will "not bow to pressure or "haste" in the forthcoming negotiations on Britain's future relationship with the EU.
The British tactic devised by Johnson's closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, to escape the "geopolitical pickle" is to try to play the larger powers against each other, using threats of high tariffs to pressure the EU, United States, China and other nations to strike trade deals with London which are favorable for Britain, British media reported.
The danger of playing powers off against each other was exposed this week when Johnson decided to allow the Chinese telecom giant Huawei a role in building Britain's 5G network, which the Trump administration urged Britain not to do on security grounds. U.S. officials warned the decision could well imperil the trade deal Johnson wants to seal with Washington.
Speaking to British historian James Hennessy, whose recent book "The Winds of Change" explores the dilemmas of post-imperial Britain, former Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson noted: "We Brits always go into our big decisions as if under anesthetic, only waking up many years later and wondering, 'Did we really mean to do that?'"
Only time will tell if Brexit was one of those big decisions.