ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Brexit and the Continental Fears of Maritime Britain

Atul Bhardwaj ( is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of International Politics, City, University of London.

The Brexit debate in England is intricately linked to the demand for the reassertion of its maritime identity and glory that many consider to have been eroded by the success of its underwater connectivity with France. The British society is badly divided on the Brexit issue. The only group gaining through this induced polarisation of British society is the right-wing populist one, which is using maritime geography to project itself as the ultimate change agent, the angel of history, and an epitome of British insularity.

I  was outside the Palace of West­minster on 29 March 2019, the historic day on which the United Kingdom (UK) was originally scheduled to leave the European Union (EU). Thou­sands of pro-Brexit supporters (also known as Brexiteers) gathered to dem­and Brexit (an abbreviation for the term “British exit” from the EU). While Brexi­teers were shouting slogans outside the parliament, the parliamentarians were voting down, for the third time, the Withdrawal Agreement presented by Prime Minister Theresa May. Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage, the two top Brexiteers in Britain were also present at the rally to highlight the pusillanimity of the political class in implementing the “leave” verdict, which emerged after the referendum held on 23 June 2016.

he gathering of “leavers” who had planned to celebrate Britain’s final divorce with the EU on the momentous day felt betrayed by their elected representatives. In the absence of a consensus in the British parliament on the “deal”—the Withdrawal Agree­ment—the EU extended the Brexit date first to 12 April, and then finally by six months to 31 October 2019.

any in Britain, who hate being bound by EU laws and regulations, desire a “hard Brexit”—wanting their government to simply walk away from the EU—without a proper withdrawal agreement. However, members of theparliament are more circumspect and want Brexit to be executed as a well-planned operation. They would prefer to avoid the overnight plunging of supply chains and border crossings into chaos with new control and customs regimes.

nterestingly, my conversations with some British South Asians in London revealed that most of them had voted to leave the EU. Their major concern was the protection of their jobs and privileges in England from the continuous stream of job-seekers from East European cou­ntries. Many British–Indians, like many of their English friends, voted in favour of Brexit due to fear of the ingress of Muslim immigrants from West Asia. The main issues that determined the voting patterns in the referendum were the fear of immigrants and the nationalist desire to see Britain great again.

owever, what caught my attention was an interesting tweet by the Brexit Party (2019)—the newly constituted political outfit led by Farage—that read: “Brexit means retaking our waters!” This was intriguing because, in the midst of economic and nationalist con­cerns, one could sense an element of geography in comment. This triggered a question: Was water really sucked out of the English Channel and did it change British geography?

The Connectivity Complex

Historically, ferry boats plying on the English Channel connected the southern English town of Dover to Calais in France. Gradually, the Dover–Calais cro­ssing emerged as Britain’s most crucial, convenient, and closest trade gateway to European markets. The British “naval mastery” ensured its control over what flowed across the channel. In 1802, when the idea of having a candlelitchannel tunnel plying horse-drawn carriages was mooted, it was opposed by the British elite. In 1929, when the tunnel was proposed to replace the ferry cro­s­sing, the voices in the media shouted aloud: “We Britons must be seadogs not earthworms” … “If a Britisher has not the grit to face one hour at sea, is he fit to belong to our island heritage?” (Lusher 2017). Adam Lusher has dug out some interesting archival material to show how in the 1970s the British military had even planned to flood the tunnel by nuking it, ostensibly to prevent the per­ceived ingress of the Warsaw Pact conv­entional forces to Dover from Calais in France (Lusher 2017). The channel tunnel project, which came up for consi­deration in 1949, was finally shelved in 1975.

The situation changed in 1994 with the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel (started in 1988) and the underwater rail-link. The high-speed transportation link reduced the relative importance of boats and ferry services in the conduct of cross-border trade. The underwater Euro-rail eroded Britain’s maritime identity and agency by making it depen­dent on France to stop the flow of immigrants or enemy forces from Calais to Dover. According to Linda Colley (1994), “The idea that a cross-Channel link would constitute a kind of phallic threat to our national purity shows the depth but also the complexity of British Francophobia.” The Channel Tunnel ens­u­red that Britain was no longer an island nation. This geographic shift was palpably unpalatable to the British admirals and elite who have lived under the illusion that British power resides in the English Channel, and its waters protect Britain from the dangerous continental powers. However, it is difficult to understand British concerns because the Euro-rail and Channel Tunnel give equal opportunity to both France and Britain to penetrate each others’ defences.

Over the years, the tunnel has become the symbol of the loss of Britain’s “mari­time manliness.” And, politicians like Nigel Farage are exploiting it by re-­kindling the hatred for it and making Brexit supporters see it as being at the centre of all ills plaguing Britain. Chris­topher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) cele­brates Britain’s maritime moorings and show­cases the rich maritime heritage of a self-reliant island nation. It is for this particular reason that the movie suited Farage’s politics. The war movie is neither about the fall of France in World War II, nor does it stoke anti-German feelings. It is simply a compelling story of how a flotilla of small boats from Dover rescues the stranded British soldiers from a French territory. The courage and Britishness of the ordinary sailor portrayed in Dunkirk made Farage tweet: “I urge every youngster to go out and watch #Dunkirk” (Farage 2017).

Unlike the movies of the 1990s, such as Mission Impossible that highlighted the train connectivity between France and Britain, Dunkirk is about British exclusivity. The logic of return to sea-faring traditions is what Farage is using to sell his brand of conservative natio­nalism, rooted in nostalgia, to the com­mon fisherfolk living in the coastal dis­tricts of Britain and to the apologists of the Empire. It fits well into the political discourse of our times, where the liberal and conservative politics of the 1980s and 1990s is being replaced by right-wing populism, claiming to be the messiah of the commoners.

In Conclusion

Brexit has proven far more difficult than what was originally imagined by those who voted in its favour. In 2016, the problems associated with operatio­na­lising Brexit were not discussed. For example, voters had no clue about the complexities involved in operating customs posts and their effect on the frictionless flow of cross-border trade. The fact that Brexit threatens the territorial integrity of the UK by complicating the borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was never given due cognisance. Brexit involves a commitment on the part of Britain to pay up to £50 billion to the EU. There is no consensus about whether the country was right to vote for Brexit and what should be the structure of Brexit. The process has left Britain—both politicians and voters—deeply polarised. The Labour and Tory parties are incurring people’s wrath on the issue.

The only group that is gaining through this induced polarisation of British society is the right-wing populist one, which is using every dimension of the Brexit debate to project itself as the ultimate change agent, the angel of history, and an epitome of British insul­arity. Brexit has provided the interna­tional right-wing populist movement a fertile ground on which to grow and expand.

Much like their fellow travellers in Washington who want to erect a wall between Mexico and the United States, Brexiteers are also ideologically opposed to the very idea of a borderless world. The role of the physical geographical environ­ment in shaping the external policy of a nation state is well-researched. However, the use or misuse of geography to exploit internal political faultiness is an area that is waiting to be explored. Geopoli­tics is often associated with outward expansion, but its use for contraction is something that the Brexit debate is teaching us.

The British maritime mindset asso­ciated with freedom of the seas cannot remain closeted in conservatism that imposes restriction on its connectivity with Europe. Britain’s sea power is not dependent on the mode of transportation it uses to cross the English Channel. The reassertion of maritime identity will not restore Britain’s past glory, nor will it halt the new transcontinental transport networks from shrinking the continent further. Yet, the alt-right is successfully exploiting masculinity associated with seafaring to evoke a false sense of natio­nal pride and fear of continental Europe. The centrist parties are too paranoid to propose a second refere­ndum, to avoid being branded anti-democracy. Britain is sleepwalking into leaving their closest friends and allies, and what is visible on the horizon is even more polarisation of British society and politics.


Colley, Linda (1994): “An Island Only in the Mind: The Channel Tunnel Has Connected Us to France, but We Were Never Really Cut Off,” Independent, 8 May, https://www.inde­­pen­

Lusher, Adam (2017): “Super-hard Brexit: How UK Planned to Blow Up the Channel with a Nuclear Bomb,” Independent, 2 April.

The Brexit Party (2019): Twitter post, 12 April, 1116650514677227520.

Farage, Nigel (2017): Twitter post, 25 July, 889971797386514434.

Updated On : 26th Apr, 2019


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