Allen Lane, £20
“They talk as if England were not in Europe,” was Edmund Burke’s retort to his critics, who believed that simply being an island was sufficient security against the threat of the French Revolution. Burke’s geopolitical understanding lies at the heart of this book. Brendan Simms (like Burke, another Irish enthusiast for the United Kingdom and a professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge) has written a trenchant, provocative account of the intimate relations of Britain and Europe and how each shaped the other.
England (and later the UK) was forged in response to successive threats from across the Channel (among others, Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Imperial Germany). In return British influence has played a crucial, often interventionist, role in the balance of power on the continent.
But this book is not just a history, it is a prospectus for radically reshaping Europe. Simms makes a strong case for the EU abandoning its slow progress towards “ever closer union” and moving rapidly to a United States of Europe (USE) with a consolidated debt, an elected parliament, senate and president, and a single army inside Nato. Its lingua franca would be English. In effect, a united Europe on the British model. However, he also argues for British exceptionalism, with the UK as the last European Great Power, not part of this new USE but in a close and privileged relation to it.
How to achieve this heroic project remains a mystery, but Simms nonetheless offers a dazzling perspective on the current EU referendum debate and its Gordian knots of security, sovereignty and prosperity.