Great Britain is the strongest imperial nation

Which the British certainly don't want to hear

After the Second World War, the countries of Europe were destroyed and in debt. But the British in particular have completely forgotten that the good old days of the nation state never existed.

The British satirist Alan Corenk once said: "Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear." This paradox has taken on a new quality with the combination of the EU election and Brexit in the UK today. So what do the British want to hear from the European politicians? EU supporters want to hear that they and their country belong to Europe. The Brexiteers, on the other hand, want to hear that Britain is different from the rest of Europe, that it can stand alone. But what unites a people? Whether within national or European borders, we only have one narrative about our history in common. This is conveyed so conclusively that it has an integrative effect and everyone can identify with it emotionally.

In the case of Europe, the narrative goes something like this: After the horror of the Second World War, the European nation-states learned from their wars and united in the European Community on a common peace and prosperity project. In the subtle fabric of this basic European narrative, however, there is still another message that has now been heard by the opponents of Europe, almost unnoticed. If the Union is the second stage in political development, then there must have been a previous one. This is more or less the original state: independent nation states. And that's exactly what you want to go back to. Be it the Brexiteers or the constantly growing populist and nationalist parties of all countries in Europe, they are all united by the desire to swim back to the home port of the nation.

From an outside perspective of Europe, Yale historian Timothy Snyder reminds Europeans of their own history as it really was. Historically, there have never been any European nation-states that were successful before the founding of the European Community. Europe consisted of long-term imperial empires and failed short-term nation-states. And these, i.e. Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, consistently pursued an imperial, not a national, policy until well into the first half of the 20th century. Nazi Germany showed us the most hideous side of imperial aspirations with Hitler's habitat project. The few “successful” nation states that emerged from the crumbling monarchies after the First World War were short-lived: Austria and its annexation are just the best example of this. Nations were classified as non-viable. There were hardly any politically successful independent nation states in Europe. Rather, it was the European imperial states where, as in Great Britain, the sun never set.

After the end of the Second World War, the European countries were destroyed and in debt. In addition, the former colonies pushed for self-determination. A quick end to imperial politics was supported by the liberal ideas of the new superpower USA and their looming rivalry with the Soviet Union. Imperialism was simply no longer an option for the crumbling European powers, there was only one solution: Europe. A united Europe was the way to prosperity despite war damage and loss of the colonies. Even if we don't want to hear it like that anymore: The EU was not born out of idealism because we learned from the horrors of war. A European community was the only strategically rational solution after imperialism. The British accession negotiators in the early 1970s knew this perfectly. Only today you don't want to hear it anymore. That is why we are not told by European politicians either.

The European narrative that unites the masses also obscures them. It speaks loudly and drowns out the soft voice of memory. Under the veil of the story, the British have completely forgotten that the good old days that the Brexiteers rave about never existed. The island as a British nation is an experiment, a piece of news in history. So if you want to go back to the near past of the supposedly familiar nation, you should at least be aware that the European experience with nation statehood is as untested as a distant and seemingly strange future as the United States of Europe. Only when the sun sets over the island for the first time after Brexit will it become clear whether a British state in Europe will be able to stand alone for the first time or not.

Kathrin Bachleitner is a political scientist at Oxford University and has lived in Great Britain for six years.