It is said that in the 1930s an English newspaper published once the following headline: “Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off”. Ever since, it has been considered a token of the British national character and as an evidence of the British longstanding attitude vis-à-vis the continent. And no wonder, as the island has been since ancient times coveted by Roman, Saxon, Viking, Norman, Frank and Nazi Germany invaders. Thereby, it is only natural that the British would now want to keep the rest of the world at arm’s length, as evidenced by the recent ‘Brexit’ majority vote to leave the European Union.
So much as far as it concerns British soil. What about British presence in the rest of the world? For centuries the British Empire extended its power all over the globe, its pervasive influence being evident until today in legacies such as the universal lingua franca – English – and the most popular sport in the planet – football.
The supporters of Brexit argue that the United Kingdom needs to retake its sovereignty back from the encroachments of the EU’s courts, tax regulations and, above all, migration mandatory quotas. The ancient specter of invasion – though this time not by fierce warriors but by hungry and poor immigrants – prompted the majority of British citizens to opt-out from the EU.
This shows a lack of historical perspective in the British public not only concerning the unique project of the EU, but also regarding their historic responsibility as the heirs of one of the latest empires in the history of humankind.
Indeed, empires by definition are meant to rule over other peoples, which more often than not has led to waging war on them. As with every war, imperial wars can be assessed under the normative frame provided by the Just War tradition. One of the latest criterions proposed by this tradition is the idea of a jus post bellum dimension accompanying those of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. A just war is not only that which is fought for the right reasons and in a civilized fashion; the victors must also make every endeavor to rebuild institutional structures for the vanquished to have a chance to thrive even after defeat. This is what has been also labeled as the ‘responsibility to rebuild’ stage of the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine.
To be sure, there is much blame to assign to the United States in terms of jus post bellum for the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria. Without a US invasion against Iraq in 2003 and poor jus post bellum policies therefrom, there would be no Islamic State forcing millions of people to flee from their homes and to seek refuge in Europe. But the historic responsibility to rebuild and to nurture political systems in the region also falls on the former British Empire and the rest of the extinct European empires, whom were the previous rulers in many of the countries were the so called ‘Arab Spring’ has violently sprouted.
An important part of rebuilding is policing or keeping security. By abandoning their historical role as military superpowers – only under the blanket of security provided by the United States during the last seven decades – European countries have neglected their duty to help local governments in providing minimum conditions for security in the countries formerly colonized by them. If the US is to blame for the Islamic State, Europeans share their part of the blame for poverty and instability in their former colonies and for the massive waves of migrants currently knocking on their doors.
Until last 23 June, history seemed to march toward regional integration in Europe. Now the United Kingdom will abandon that path. But Europeans had long ago started to stray from their historic responsibility to rebuild the worlds they once destroyed and carved out at will.