[Brexit]: What Has Europe Ever Done for Us? Lots!

Matthew MacLachlan

27 Jun 2016

“We are inextricably part of Europe. [No one] will ever be able to take us out of Europe, for Europe is where we are and where we have always been.” (Margaret Thatcher 1975)

Ian Morris in his article in the Harvard Business Review reminds us of a quotation from a very unlikely source – Margaret Thatcher, speaking in 1975.  But are we truly part of Europe, regardless of the results of the EU referendum last week?

To mimic Monty Python, “What has the EU ever done for us?”  Are we, like the oppressed Galileans in the film Life of Brian, really European in a way that Iceland, for example, isn’t.

We are inextricably part of Europe. [No one] will ever be able to take us out of Europe (Margaret Thatcher)

Who Are the British?

One of the slogans used by the more extremist Brexit campaigners was, “Britain for the Anglo-Saxons” – presumably referring to a nation that is made up of the Angles (North Germans and Danes), Saxons (Middle Germans), the Jutes (Netherlands) and Celts (Wales, Ireland and Scotland) who combined with Vikings from Denmark, Iceland and Norway.

By the time of the Norman (French) invasion, there was little evidence of the aboriginal tribes that preceded the Romans.  The 20th-century immigration from the former Empire has done little to dilute this.  Ethnically speaking, we are undeniably European.

An Island Nation?

Edward Heath, the former prime minister once said, “We may be a small island, but we are not a small people.”

Perhaps we should learn from John Dunne’s famous quote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.”  Not famous for his expertise in plate tectonics, Dunne was the more correct – although currently an island, for 99% of the planet’s history Britain has been part of the European continent.

Only recently have we been separated by a thin stretch of water: the English Channel is, at its narrowest, 20 miles wide.  In comparison, Hawaii is 2,400 miles from Los Angeles, and is considered part of The United States of America; Réunion is some 5,700 miles from France but is considered very much part of France. We can, therefore, conclude that geographically we are European.

Surely Our Language Sets Us Apart?

“If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us!” (Attributed to Miriam Ferguson, Governor of Texas in 1924)

It will come as no surprise that our unique English language is not an island either!  Part of the Indo-European group of languages, English grammar is largely Germanic – certainly, our verb and tense system are: thou hast (old English) – du hast (German).

There are very few remains of the indigenous British languages left – Cornish is probably the closest – the English we love is Latin, French, German, Indian (Hindi), Spanish – and that is just the modern language influences (and in this context, Latin is modern!).  We have loan words from many European languages, and it is the most flexible language, able to adapt and grow as the country changes.

Did you realise the German and French origins of the animals we rear to eat? Just look at the origin of what we put on our tables every day:


Animal (English)

Animal (German)

Meat (English)

Meat (French)

Cow Kuh Beef Boeuf
Calf Kalb Veal Veau
Pig Schweine Pork Porc
Sheep Schaf Mutton Mouton
Hen Huhn Poultry Poulet
Deer Deor* Venison Venaison


*From Middle English deere, dere, der, dier, deor ‎(small animal, deer), from Old English dēor, dīor ‎(an animal, beast, any sort of wild animal, wild beast; deer, reindeer), from Proto-Germanic *deuzą (Wiktionary)

What Has Europe Ever Done for Us?

Our system of roads follows the foundation that the Romans put down; our art, culture and music is heavily influenced by the Sun King, Louis XIV and the European Renaissance; we owe our court system to one modelled on the Romans (Italy); we prefer Swedish furniture, and that most English of foods, fish and chips is a Spanish-Belgian fusion.  Our first ever attempts at codifying the rights of citizens, the Magna Carta had to be translated into French so that people could understand it.

Are We Sure We Don’t Want to Be European?

We may be a small island, but we are not a small people (Edward Heath, former British Prime Minister)

Britain as a nation has not been invaded since 1066, so there is no reason for us to be involved in European wars unless we have a vested interest in Europe.

  • 1756-1763: Britain wanted to change the balance of power in Europe
  • 1803-1815: Napoleonic Wars – an attempt to increase British influence in Europe at the expense of the French.
  • 1856: Crimean War – restricting Russian power in Southern Europe
  • 1914-1918: Increasing influence in Europe, strengthening alliance with France
  • 1939-1945: Protecting the independence of Poland, and curbing German expansion

This is a very simplified list of the reasons behind these conflicts but it shows that historically Britain has always had interests in Europe, and has wanted to be involved in the defining moments of European history.  Britain has never been isolationist and has never had the luxury of being able to want to be!

But Britain’s Cultural Values Are Unique, Aren’t They?

From an intercultural perspective, Britain is right at the centre of Europe.  The most common ways of measuring cultural values (e.g. Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, E T Hall et al.) put British values in the middle of each scale.  We hover between the polar dimensions and are a counter-weight that sits in the middle and advocates compromise: Italians are too passionate, the Finns too calm – Britain sits between the two.


origin of British cultural and political values

The Germans are too precise and punctual, the Greeks are too chaotic and flexible in time – Britons are fashionably five minutes late and have a flexible agenda that acts as a guideline, without being too rigid.

Britain has voted to leave the European Union after 43 years, and, when the Brexit dust settles after the political and economic earthquake, we will wake up and find ourselves still part of Europe, whatever the paperwork says.

Only now we will have to work a little harder to rebuild some of the cultural trust and influence we have built; we will need to invest more time in learning European languages and cultural behaviours in order to ensure that now that we are no longer in the EU club we are able to retain our position at the heart of European culture, business and…life.

As a final irony, tonight, in Paris, England and Iceland (one potential former EU member and a non-EU member) played football for the right to remain in Europe. Iceland won and England is now leaving Europe for a second time in a week! Not the Brexit scenario that many voters would have wanted.

[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]
[if lte IE 8]