Brexit: The Renaissance of Islands

Great Britain’s exit from the European Union illustrates a half-forgotten scenario entitled “Islands” envisaged by the National Intelligence Council in 2017. Two years ago, this center for strategic thinking predicted that the world would enter a period of economic slow-down, generating resistance to globalization. According to the American forecasters, high technology would become more widespread, politics would become unstable, insecurity would grow, protectionism would reappear, the middle classes would become poorer, and artificial intelligence would have revolutionized the labor market. Most importantly, world digitalization would have helped mutually impenetrable cultural islands to emerge. In this scenario, real islands have an advantage because they can blend different identities together with greater ease. They also have another asset: resilience.

From a historical point of view, Great Britain has experienced two great moments of integration into the European mainland. The first lasted from the years 51 to 410, when the British Isles were connected to the Roman Empire. The second ran intermittently from the 11th to the 15th centuries and brought England and France closer together. Previous Brexits have had undeniable economic repercussions. The post-Roman period was marked by invasions and demographic collapse within the British Isles’ borders, and when England was expelled from the European mainland in 1453, economic relations between England and Flanders were suspended, Flemish entrepreneurs migrated across the Channel, and Holland’s banking business soared.

If we consider the physical or cultural islands that do not belong to the European Union, it is clear that they are managing rather well. Iceland applied to become a member of the EU in 2009 but withdrew its request in 2013. Iceland’s economy is now one of the world’s most prosperous, despite having taken a direct hit during the subprime mortgage crisis. Iceland’s economic policy, which has always been fairly open to outside trade, was reinforced by its entry into the European Economic Area in 1993 and by the GATT agreements. Switzerland also has the characteristics of a highly prosperous “island” separate from the European Union, although it is economically connected to the EU by more than 20 bilateral agreements. The political islands of Jersey, Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and Liechtenstein are all tax havens. The picture is, of course, very different in the southern Balkans and Kaliningrad, where severe economic problems are rife.

Certain French regions will doubtlessly benefit from Brexit. Brittany, for example, has long-standing historical and cultural ties to the Celtic countries that voted against Brexit (specifically a section of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland). If Northern Ireland gains a special status post-Brexit, it will become to England what Guyenne was to France. Because Great Britain is the original heartland of liberalism, its increasingly distant relationship with the heavy bureaucratic structures of the continent should be viewed as a way of optimizing the dividends it reaps from its economic power while preserving its cultural independence. Using high technology to globalize the planet has, paradoxically, led to a resurgence in individual identities.