(Dis)United Kingdom: The View from the other Europes

Manuela Boatcă

In a recent policy paper, ambitiously titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, the British government states that, “as an open economy and a maritime trading nation with a large diaspora”, the UK is “a European country with global interests”. In the very next sentence, it posits that the country’s “future prosperity will be enhanced by our economic connections with dynamic parts of the world […] as well as trade with Europe” (UK Government 2021: 14). The geopolitically Freudian slip of identifying as a European country while professing a will to trade with Europe is revealing of more than one unwarranted shorthand in Brexit discourse and policy.

First, there is the conflation of Europe with the European Union. To be fair, using the former to refer to the latter is, in itself, not particular to Brexit discourse. Yet the monopoly that the economic and political project of the European Union has acquired over the historical and present meanings of “Europe” has gradually narrowed attention to, and awareness of, European affairs down to European Union member states. At the same time, candidate countries – from the ten Eastern European members that joined in 2004 to Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, which joined in 2007 and 2014, respectively – were told to “Europeanize”; or were told off, as in the case of Turkey, which had first applied for EU accession in 1987. Framing Brexit, from the referendum to its current implications, in binary terms that pit “European membership” against a “Global Britain”, leaves out the UK’s manifold European ties – until they surface as tautological references to a Europe-not-in- Europe, as above. Not least, such framing (purposefully?) downplays European global ambitions and long-standing global entanglements.

This brings me to a second leap in meaning, constantly reproduced in Brexit discourse and beyond. Even when not directed specifically at the European Union, references to “Europe” in the singular obscure the multiplicity of unequal Europes resulting from the different roles that regions of Europe played in the global colonial enterprise (incidentally, at least as much of a “Competitive Age” as the one in which the “Global Britain” agenda is currently placed). What informed the reigning notion of “Europe” – and its corresponding claims to civilization, modernity, and development – was defined one-sidedly from positions of power mainly associated with colonial and imperial rule.

France and England, the rising colonial powers of the eighteenth century, self-described as the producers of modernity’s main revolutions –  the French Revolution and the industrial revolution –  and claimed the status of a “heroic Europe” as the norm. This self-serving narrative accordingly relegated the early colonial powers, Spain and Portugal, to a lesser, “decadent” Europe, while large parts of the European East, which had lost out of colonial possessions overseas during that particular competitive age, became the “epigonal Europe” perpetually trying to catch up (Boatcă 2021).

what does the UK look like when viewed from some of these other Europes?

Even more important for today’s definitions of Europe, however, is the fact that the colonial possessions, which were economically indispensable for these achievements and administratively integral parts of Western European states, played no part in the definition of Europe or its claims to modernity. To this day, many of these areas, which official language labels “overseas countries and territories” and “outermost regions”, are under the control of European states – from the Dutch Caribbean to the French Antilles and the British Virgin Islands. They are “forgotten” Europes: the geopolitically and discursively least visible group among the multiple Europes resulted from power shifts within and beyond the continent during the past five centuries. UK’s overseas territories, whose populations were unable to vote in the Brexit referendum and whose future status was largely neglected during Brexit negotiations, are themselves such forgotten Europes – and one of the reasons why the (Dis)United Kingdom has long been both European and global. So what does the UK look like when viewed from some of these other Europes?

Fig. 1. Map of the British Isles, as well as the various British Overseas Territories
Image Credit: MrPenguin20 Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Britain controls fourteen overseas territories with different forms of statehood and degrees of self-determination in the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Indian, and the Pacific oceans, and in continental Europe (see figure 1). Before Brexit, the UK was the EU state controlling the most overseas territories – a total of thirteen that counted as overseas countries and territories (OCTs) within the EU framework – plus continental Gibraltar, by definition not “overseas”. The remaining twenty-two OCTs of the European Union are the result of the colonial involvement of five EU member states: Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Of these, nine are part of France, Portugal, and Spain and thus fully-fledged EU members; they are considered outermost regions (ORs) of the European Union and are subject to EU legislation.

According to official language, the remaining thirteen “are not sovereign countries but depend to varying degrees on the 3 Member countries with which they maintain special links” (European Commission 2020). These Danish, Dutch, and French colonies are not part of the single market, yet their nationals are EU citizens. In contrast, most citizens of British Overseas Territories before Brexit were British nationals holding British passports and subject to British sovereignty, but not full British citizens. They were also, therefore, not EU citizens with freedom of movement in other EU countries. Yet they were, and continued to be, exempt from obtaining a visa when traveling within the Schengen Area and had the right to apply for full British citizenship. After the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU in 2020, the thirteen British Overseas Territories no longer form part of the European Union’s OCTs. The consequences of this decision for individual territories not only differ widely, but have in the most cases not even been addressed in post-Brexit regulations and negotiations.

The programmatic forgetting of Britain’s other Europes was already apparent as Brexit negotiations at home vied with the urgent need for disaster relief overseas in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which had incurred considerable damage in Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands in 2017. While France and the Netherlands quickly dispatched taskforces and military personnel to the equally affected French and Dutch Caribbean territories, Britain’s slow response, described as “appalling” by the British nationals affected by the hurricane, prompted even conservative media to insist that “Britain must care for all its citizens” (The Telegraph 2017).

Although media and local overseas governments’ warnings and pleas have since increased exponentially, Britain had yet to systematically heed them. In the British government’s framework document on Brexit, released in 2018, references to the overseas territories are both scarce and vague. They range from “seeking specific arrangements for the Crown Dependencies, Gibraltar and the other Overseas Territories” through “ensuring an appropriate and beneficial future relationship across the UK family” and up to “upholding their British sovereignty” (UK Parliament 2018). They remain as vague as to only commit to “meeting the needs of the wider UK family, including the Crown Dependencies and the Overseas Territories”.

a solution for avoiding a hard border with the EU was negotiated only for Gibraltar

Crucially, the framework document makes no mention of their maritime borders with EU territories in the Caribbean – even as they are placed next to concrete plans regarding EU borders on the mainland, such as the plan to “protect the union, avoiding the need for any hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland” (UK Parliament 2018). After the last-minute Brexit deal, a solution for avoiding a hard border with the EU was negotiated only for Gibraltar (the only overseas territory located in continental Europe and the only full EU member among them): joining the Schengen zone. While ratifying this preliminary agreement as a treaty detailing the consequences for free movement, border control, and fishing rights is expected to take months, no such hope is in sight for the remaining overseas territories (Müller 2021).

Among them, Anguilla, the oldest British colony and a British territory since 1650, offers a striking mirror image of Britain’s political borders in the Caribbean. Just like Britain, Anguilla shares a maritime border with France through its own “English Channel” – the Anguilla channel – which separates it from the French “overseas collectivity” of St. Martin. Yet unlike Britain, Anguilla also borders the Netherlands to the south through Sint Maarten, a “constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands” on the same island as the French St. Martin. Anguilla is dependent upon both for trade and transportation: planes bound to Anguilla can only land on the Dutch part, Sint Maarten, while the only cargo port, through which Anguilla receives most goods, is located in the French part of the island, St. Martin. It has no access to postal services, fuel, basic medical services and educational special needs other than through the facilities located in the Dutch and French territories.

Anguilla still faces the prospect of harboring an instant refugee – or illegalized – population of British People of Colour

While Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU were ongoing, the Government of Anguilla published two reports signaling the urgency and importance of these issues, detailing Brexit risks and drafting possible avenues to prevent a mirror Brexit border in the Caribbean, such as a regional customs union and common travel area with the island of Saint Martin (Government of Anguilla 2017; 2018). At the time of writing this text, Anguilla still faces the prospect of harboring an instant refugee – or illegalized – population of British People of Colour in this forgotten Europe. In the meantime, Anguilla’s population decreased from almost 17,000 people in 2016 to 13,500 in 2018 as people migrated in search of a less risky future. Population numbers did rise again in 2020, yet this was mainly due to the worldwide restrictions on emigration during the pandemic.

An aspect that received little media and policy attention is that Brexit not only resulted in the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, but also of its Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) from the rest of the Overseas Countries and Territories Association, the organization that regulates cooperation between the EU and the overseas dependencies of its member states (Grass 2021). The imposition of high tariffs on the squid and fish exported to the EU from the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory that was explicitly excluded from the UK/EU Brexit accord, or on the honey produced only on the Pitcairn Islands, have received only scant attention despite the likelihood of momentous impact.

The Falkland Islands economy relies heavily on fish, of which up to 90 percent is exported to the EU. The Pitcairn Islands, Britain’s smallest and most remote overseas territory, exports one-third of its honey to the EU and had so far received around 2.4 million euros from the European Development Fund towards several building projects, including a school and a harbour (Connelly 2019). Post-Brexit concerns in both territories, which are of strategic economic importance to other EU countries, have prompted questions whether the Falkland Islands might ask for Spain’s intervention on the issue of the EU-imposed tariffs on squid exports and whether Pitcairn, currently facing depopulation, might soon be for sale – much to the interest of France.

Yet the most affected remains Anguilla, the island most dependent on the relationship with the European Union among the UK’s overseas territories. As an “internally self-governing British territory”, as the official language has it, Anguilla is ineligible for most British development aid. Yet before Brexit, in which Anguilla’s citizens didn’t have a vote, the European Union was the island’s main source of funding, especially for reconstruction projects after the hurricanes of the past several years. In the absence of clear post-Brexit provisions, it is likely that EU funding will be cut off. Blondel Cluff, until recently Anguilla’s representative in London, hinted at Anguilla’s location being a mirror image of Britain’s borders when stating: “Saint Martin is our backyard, and we are theirs. Everyone has family there too. If that border becomes like Dover and Calais, that’s going to make life very difficult for Anguilla” (quoted in Connelly 2019).

Anguilla is the only British colony that ever fought to remain British

Quite unlike other dependent territories across the world today, Anguilla is the only British colony that ever fought to remain British – rather than belong to an independent island federation together with St. Kitts and Nevis. The long-drawn process, known on the island as the Anguilla revolution, included a declaration of independence from St. Kitts and Nevis in 1967, two referenda in 1967 and 1969, in which over 99.7 percent of the population voted for secession from the then state of St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla. An infamous invasion of the island by Britain’s metropolitan police in 1969 was met with peaceful demonstrations by unarmed locals and ridiculed in the press of the time as the “Bay of Piglets” (Hannan 2019). Anguilla formally seceded from St. Kitts and Nevis in 1980 in order to remain a British colony.

Such decisions for a formal colonial status can be of strategic self-interest. They result from weighing the risks posed by political upheaval, the small size of island economies, and the additional management capacity necessary after independence against the advantages that the maintenance of colonial ties offers, and that in most cases include economic assistance, welfare provisions, as well as access to the citizenship of a EU member and the mobility benefits it guarantees. In view of the fact that none of several EU overseas territories with good prospects for independence at the end of the twentieth century have since chosen sovereignty, the authors of “The Ends of Empire. The Last Colonies Revisited” conclude that “Opposition to independence is not illogical. Brexit has shown how issues initially considered of no obvious relevance to OTs, and determined without reference to them can have powerful repercussions, ironically pointing to the virtues of an externally guaranteed security” (Connell and Aldrich 2020: 104).  

Despite the imperial rhetoric of global reach, the resulting picture is one of a fragmented, disunited Kingdom that has yet to take accountability for its imperial present

In a section titled “Our interests and our values: the glue that binds the Union”, the UK government’s policy paper on Global Britain indeed lists sovereignty, security and prosperity as “the shared interests [that] bind together the citizens of the United Kingdom” (UK Government 2021: 13). Yet, in claiming that, “it is as the United Kingdom that we boast armed forces with global reach”, in proceeding to advocate for “the” UK border as “the most effective in the world” by 2025 – “the gateway to Global Britain”, and in presenting the UK Global Tariff as a tool to maintain “an open and competitive UK market in the interests of UK consumers”, it systematically leaves out the concerns of its overseas citizens and other nationals from every single one of these shared interests. This is so, from Anguila’s EU border with St. Martin to the newly imposed tariffs for the Falkland Islands and Pitcairn and the renewed talk of sovereignty both in the overseas territories and in the British Isles themselves. Despite the imperial rhetoric of global reach, the resulting picture is one of a fragmented, disunited Kingdom that has yet to take accountability for its imperial present.

Manuela Boatcă is Professor of Sociology and Head of School of the Global Studies Programme at the University of Freiburg, Germany. She has published widely on world-systems analysis, decolonial perspectives on global inequalities, gender and citizenship in modernity/coloniality, and the geopolitics of knowledge in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. She is author of Global Inequalities beyond Occidentalism, Routledge 2016 and of Laboratoare ale modernității. Europa de Est și America Latină în (co)relație, IDEA 2020, as well as co-editor (with A. Amelina, A. Weiß, and G. Bongaerts) of “Theorizing Society Across Borders: Globality, Transnationality, Postcoloniality”, Current Sociology special issue 2021. Her co-authored book Creolizing the Modern. Transylvania Across Empires (with Anca Parvulescu) is forthcoming in English, German, and Romanian in 2022.

Header image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Flickr


Boatcă, Manuela 2021. ‘(Dis)United Kingdom: The View from the other Europes’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (2) https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2021.02.0006