John Bruton

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Tag: Brendan Simms


I recently greatly enjoyed reading “Europe, the Struggle for Supremacy 1453 to the Present” by Brendan Simms.

He writes from a perspective that sees continuing conflict as the determining force in European politics. Military and strategic considerations are paramount.

This emphasis would not be shared by all historians. Peter Wilson’s “The Holy Roman Empire, a thousand years of European history” lays stress, instead. on a long surviving effort to build a European  legal order, that curbed and contained conflicts, under a shared allegiance to an elected Emperor and to a commonly accepted set of mutual expectations. This thousand year old arrangement only ended in 1806, after 1000 years.

Indeed, Simms own book throws light on later attempts to reconstitute a common European Home with common European set of house rules.

In the 1920s, the French leader Aristide Briand was prepared to trade French sovereignty for permanent restraints on German power. The UK stood aside from this because it relied instead on guaranteed of military support for its position from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada at the Imperial Conference of 1925. Although the Irish Free State was at that Conference, it offered no similar guarantee.

After the Second World War, a meeting, chaired by Winston Churchill, took place in the Hague in 1948 in a second attempt to build a structure for unity in Europe and avoid another war.

It could not agree on a model for European unity. Most countries were prepared to pool some sovereign powers, but the UK insisted that it would only work on an intergovernmental basis, which maximised its freedom of action. Even when it eventually joined the European Common Market, which did contain some sharing of sovereignty, UK politicians, and public opinion continued to see “Europe” as something apart from the UK, with which the UK would do business on a transactional case by case basis. Therein lay the seeds of Brexit.

In their hearts, many English people never joined the European Union at all.

While Simms may over emphasise the geostrategic conflicts in and around Europe, others ignore these at their peril.

Russian pressure on the Baltic States and Ukraine harks back to conflicts that last came to the surface at the end of the First World War. Rumania feels threatened by Russian pressure in Moldova, which was occupied by Stalin in 1940 under cover of his pact with Hitler.

I do not think there is a true European Union consensus on how to deal with any escalation of these types of conflicts, notwithstanding the mutual defence assurances NATO members have given one another. There is still an implicit reliance on the United States to save Europe.

But, unless there is a crisis, European defence policy will evolve very slowly.

The EU is not a state and is not about to become one. It is, instead, a habit of consultation and common action between states, underpinned by legal and institutional arrangements that are evolving in response to needs as they arise.

Ireland will remain within that structure with some influence on its evolution. The UK is turning aside, which is unfortunate because the security of much of Ireland’s infrastructure is dependent on links through the UK and its territorial waters. The sea is not the barrier to interference by hostile forces that it was in 1939. Increased interdependence has brought  increased vulnerability

Brendan Simms writes very well and there is new insight or angle on European history to be found on every second page.

I recommend this book, and also Peter Wilson’s book too (although I am only a quarter way through it!).


Britians Europe.inddWhy has Britain always had such an ambiguous approach to being involved in the EU?

Why did it refuse to join the Common Market in 1957, only to apply to join in 1961?

Why has it felt the need to opt out of many EU policies, and why is making a  modest contribution to the EU budget so controversial in Britain?

 I have recently read

 “Britain’s Europe,  A thousand years of Conflict and Cooperation” by Brendan Simms, an Irish historian,  who is Professor if the history of International Relations in Cambridge University in the UK.

In this excellent book, he explores the deep historic roots of Britain’s attitudes to the continent of Europe.

His underlying thesis is that England’s abiding concern has been to protect itself from unwanted intrusion by continental European powers.

Even Britain’s imperial expansion into other continents, and its development of the dominant navy in the world, were designed, Simms believes, to bolster its position vis a vis Europe.

England interfered in Ireland and Scotland, and invaded them, to prevent them being used as a base by its continental enemies. These motives, Simms argues, lay behind the Acts of Union of 1707 with Scotland, and  of 1800 with Ireland.

England made alliances with lesser powers on the continent to curb whichever was the continent’s biggest power.

First it did so to curb Spain, later to curb France, and most recently to curb Germany.

Its policy was to create a balance of power on the continent so that no one continental power would be strong enough to threaten Britain.

It always felt vulnerable to invasion from the continent, and indeed it was only thanks to luck, or to unfavourable winds, that many planned invasions did not happen. The last successful invasion was by the Dutch in 1688.

To deter invasion, England always wanted to ensure that the dominant continental power did not control the “Low countries”, now Belgium or Holland. Britain went to war against France in 1792, and against Germany in 1914, to prevent the dominant European power controlling the Low countries.

British statesmen have not been opposed to European unity on principle.

For example, Edmund Burke favoured a “Commonwealth of Europe.”

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Castlereagh favoured regular European Summits.

The problem for England is that a united Europe would make the British policy or backing lesser powers to create a balance of power impossible to operate, unless, of course, Britain could do this from INSIDE a united Europe. But that would trammel its historic freedom of action.

Its continuing inability to decide on which of these contradictory options to pursue explains why “Europe” is such a toxic issue in British politics.

Brendan Simms argues that Britain “cannot be compared” to other European powers because of

  •  its economic strength,
  •  its permanent UNSC seat,
  •  its nuclear deterrent, and
  •  the size of its conventional military.

He believes that the Euro Zone will have to create a fully fledged Federal state to sustain the Euro. He believes the UK would stay out of this.

While I agree with this last point, I find both of his other arguments unconvincing.  Britain is not that different, and the euro can be sustained without a fully fledged Federal state being created. I attempted to show how, in a previous posting on this site.

This is a very timely book and deserves to be read in all European countries, including Ireland.

The balance of power thinking that motivates British policy was relevant when Europe had 25% of the world’s population and 50% of its wealth. It makes much less sense now, when Europeans are only 7% of the world’s population and have a declining share of global wealth.

Nostalgia is nor a sound policy, for Britain or for Europe as a whole. That is why UK voters should remain in the EU.

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