The Brexiteers are much misunderstood by my compatriots across the Channel. A Europe of nations is what the continent needs
I am a Eurosceptic. I have never understood the idea of a political community without sovereignty or accountability. I have always found bizarre the idea that political representation can be independent of history, tradition and language. I have always frowned upon the prose of Jean Monnet, who condemned nation-states as essentially harmful and triggers of war. I was shocked by the aftermath of the 2005 French referendum on the European Constitution, in which a majority of people voted against it, only to be forced to accept that the same treaty under another name (the Lisbon Treaty) would be inserted into the French constitution by parliament.
The most intriguing aspect of the EU is that it has constantly denied that nations matter. It has ignored that the fact that the very strength of Europe, from the 18th century onwards, has been the prominence of its nations, their mutual influences, and their friendly competition. It has also misunderstood the real lesson of the 20th century — that nations become dreadful if they feel diminished, as Germany did after the First World War. Instead of seeing fascism as a pathology of the nation, and to treat it as a pathology, the EU has tried to erase the idea of the nation altogether. This is exactly the same thing as killing somebody in order to cure his illness. However, after 1957, the balance of power in the Common Market allowed two visions to coexist — the federalist one, supported by some Germans and French, and the nation-based one, championed by General de Gaulle. Ironically, while the British disliked de Gaulle because he refused them entry to the European Community: he could now be their hero. And if de Gaulle’s vision clashed with the UK’s, it was not on the importance of nations but on the influence of America on Europe. Seen from here, it was a good time for Europe.
From the 1980s onwards, the “Europe of nations” has lost ideological ground within EU institutions. What is particularly striking is that the EU has become a goal to be reached, and never to be lived. Instead of being a set of pragmatic agreements on a range of matters, it has become the embodiment of an ideological vision of how people should live politically. Hence the striking fact that every time the EU has reached a standstill, the answer has been either more integration or an extension of the Union’s border — that is what “ever-closer union” means. But would you treat a drug addict by prescribing him more drugs? Now the nations are rebelling — beginning with the UK. But there are still federalists who sincerely believe in the political consistency of the EU.
Interestingly, though, their case against Brexit, here and on the Continent, is mainly economic and not political — “if you leave, the economic consequences will be terrible”. Until June 23, the day of the referendum, experts and campaigners on both sides will do battle, armed with their contradictory economic data. But is that the right battle to concentrate on? While the short-term consequences of a Leave vote may be economically harmful, the long-term ones are unknown, and could go either way.
The best defence of Brexit is actually political, even philosophical, and it is a conservative one. A state is never the first step of a political community: it is rather civil society, which, with its traditions, bonds and virtue, shapes a common understanding of the good life. The state is then mandated by society to protect people when needed. The representatives of the people in government must therefore be held accountable: they are elected, but they can also be dismissed if they fail to fulfill the people’s mandate. The form taken by this settlement, in Europe, has been the nation-state, a rather complex community, shaped by the encounter between a society and a territory, but in which society and state are still distinct entities. The people of a nation are a demos — they share a history, a culture and a language. The EU is the negation of both principles — accountability and the nation supported by a demos. The European Parliament is elected, but a proper vote of confidence to dismiss the parliament and the Commission is impossible. MEPs come from different countries, are distant from the voters, and, together with the Commission, shape rules that are identical for people who are different in terms of culture and values. For federalists, this is the very point of the EU — to shape a super-nation, with a new kind of accountability. But they forget that a demos is never built in a day, and that time, experience and the wish to live together matter.
The exceptional character of Britain is not a myth. This is the only European country where free trade and tradition stand together as friends, and even support each other; the only one too not to have bred fascism. The Continent misunderstands what free trade means in Britain — not the first step towards a political union but one of the embodiments of civil society. For the British, and even more for the Conservatives, a country can be in favour of free markets and open to the world but politically self-sufficient. And however many treaties Britain signed with the EU, were it to leave, the sovereignty principle would not be undermined. There is a difference between a rule that a country has voluntarily accepted and the same rule that has been imposed on it.
However, it is sometimes difficult, if you are from the Continent, to agree with everything the Leave campaigners say, even if you sympathise with their goal. Not all supporters of leaving fight the same way, but some of them do not hesitate to distort the facts. It is too easy, for example, to mention Britain’s contribution to the EU without including the taxes paid by EU citizens who work here. It is too easy, too, not to make any distinction between European immigrants in terms of professional qualifications. I assume, for example, that French and Germans pay more taxes in Britain than they receive benefits, and this is without taking into account their private consumption. Of course, they contribute to the housing shortage, but here again, there are few attempts on the Brexit side to question the respective contribution of immigration, regulation and market inefficiency to the rise of housing costs. Instead, leaving the EU is presented as a magical solution to a problem that also has domestic origins.
And it is not only a question of money— at least, not directly. In an area I know and care about — universities and research — the EU has definitely helped to sustain research and innovation. According to the Guardian, “for a country with 0.9 per cent of the world’s population, the UK has 3.3 per cent of the world’s scientific researchers who, in turn, produce 6.9 per cent of global scientific output.”
The EU is the world leader in terms of its global share of science researchers (22.2 per cent), ahead of China (19.1 per cent) and the US (16.7 per cent). And, as the Guardian points out, the UK is one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU with 15.4 per cent of funds; only Germany receives more.
“New figures show that nearly 1,000 projects at 78 UK universities and research centres are dependent on funds from the European Research Council (ERC),” adds the paper. “The UK has more ERC-funded projects than any other country, accounting for 22 per cent of all ERC-funded projects — more than 25 recipient countries put together.”
And all this is dependent on the free movement of scientists into the UK.
Even if, from a libertarian point of view, one argued that public-funded research was biased and useless — and I do not — one has to recognise that a great country has every interest in trying to attract great researchers. To continue to attract them, if Britain were to leave the EU, it would still have to commit to their free movement. And if the government chose to allow less public funding to research, the British private sector would have to compensate for it.
Britain is conscious of its appeal for European people and is proud of it. Qualified immigration will always be allowed, say Brexiteers. Or will it? Few remember Theresa May’s speech at last year’s Conservative Party Conference. She said: “We welcome students coming to study. But the fact is, too many of them are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out. If they have a graduate job, that is fine. If not, they must return home. So I don’t care what the university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced. Students, yes; overstayers, no. And the universities must make this happen.”
I do not see how “overstayers” can survive in Britain without a job. And regarding benefits, I can assure Mrs May that the French or even German systems are more generous for students and recent graduates. Her speech was rather a pathetic attempt to rally the troops. But the damage to the morale of academics and the European students wanting to come to Britain may be bigger than one thinks.
The situation of less-qualified people is more complicated. From their point of view, they have been allowed to come to Britain because they were needed. Now they are accused of lowering wages — which they have done. But they are real people, not just statistics, and I assume that they feel pretty hurt by the current debate. Don’t the European immigrants who settled here a long time ago, even if they are not very qualified, deserve better treatment, at least in the way some commentators talk about them?
That is why, on the whole, the question is probably more one of good manners than anything else: it is both harmful and stupid to upset European people living or studying in Britain just for the sake of it, by telling them they do not contribute a bit, especially if they are highly qualified. Of course, Brexit is a campaign and not a political project — a political project, if Britain were to leave the EU, would require parliamentary debates and compromises. But I sometimes fear that some campaigners do not see the difference between the campaign and future policies, and that they expect to resolve complicated issues quickly and easily.
Some Brexit supporters talk about the referendum as a way to trigger other referendums across Europe — for example in France. I am not sure, however, if the rest of Europe is ready for it yet. Brits who want to leave the EU do it for the sake of their liberty, embodied by their parliament, and their unique history. But in France, the Front National (FN) and the far Left — the most vocal opponents of the EU — would support “Franxit” for the sake of statism. When the FN talks about “sovereignty”, Britain shouldn’t be misled: sovereignty, for the FN, doesn’t mean parliament but the President of the Republic; not accountability but Napoleon-like power; not checks and balances but cheques and allowances. As for the free market, the FN, as its website puts it, stands against the “total openness of borders to unfair competition” and the “hyper-austerity” of the EU. In France, a campaign to leave the EU would not be Project Fear but Real Fear. And I am left wondering: has the EU helped the free market to take root in France or not? While such a question is absurd in the British context, the French case is more complicated.
Brexiteers would be foolish to think that other referendums in the EU would have the same motives and outcomes as in the UK, not to mention Eastern European countries who have clearly benefited, in economic and political terms, from joining the EU. For decades, Europeans have told Brits that they had to remain in the EU because only they could steer the Union in a more free-market direction. I know that they are fed up with this argument, because they think that the free market has not progressed enough in Europe. But everything is relative, isn’t it?
In France, another consequence of the British debate, whatever the outcome of the British referendum, could be to reinforce the pitiful dispute between “Euro-haters” and “Euro-fanatics”. A striking example of the level of that debate was a recent comment by the newly-appointed foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who happens to be François Hollande’s former prime minister and was so bad than he had to be sacked. Ayrault now says he wants France, along with Germany, to be the driver of a more integrated EU. How many times since the 1960s haven’t we heard this empty tune? Why, as soon as a strong criticism of Europe arises, is the only possible answer from the Euro-fanatics: “We need more Europe”? This goes beyond reason. This is why I do not think, as optimists here do, that the EU will try to reform itself — at least not now — because nobody is ready to make the neccessary compromises.
For all those reasons, at least in France, the best solution is both to appease separatist aspirations and to halt any attempt at a more integrated Europe. We have to wait for another generation of politicians ready to question the EU with a cool head.
None of this really matters in the UK. What matters more, however, is that Britain should not underestimate the hard feelings on the Continent. Today, other European countries are struggling to understand the acrimony of the British opponents of the EU. The least ideologically-minded on the Continent see the EU as a platform for negotiation and treaties, where every country has to make compromises on some subjects to get what it wants on others. They think Britain lacks a strategic mind, and is too inflexible. They maintain that Britain signed all the EU treaties voluntarily — it took the responsibility, when signing, to abide by all its regulations. Going backwards now seems inconsistent. Plus, Britain is the first country to have opened its borders, in 2004, to Eastern European immigration, with almost no restriction on work at the time, whereas France, for example, implemented a five-year period of restrictions. The wish to leave is mainly perceived as a selfish move — from the “sick man of Europe” in the 1970s, Britain has turned into an ungrateful and arrogant partner.
Whatever answer Brits keen to leave the EU give — the EU is corrupt; the compromises to be made boil down to the denial of sovereignty; a Labour government was responsible for mass immigration from Eastern Europe; the British have given more to Europe than they have received — they will never satisfy the public on the Continent. A narrow majority of French people want the UK to stay in the EU — which means that almost half want the UK to leave. This is not because the French are open-minded and generous — “let them get back their sovereignty!” — but because, as I often hear, they are sick of the Brits. Never satisfied, never generous — “look at the migrant crisis!” — and always prone to ask for “special status”. This view is mostly unfair, but is widely shared among the French public.
All that is to say that if the Brexiteers care about a Europe of nations and not of bureaucrats, they should be careful not to hurt their fellow Europeans too much. They should look further than the referendum, and, whatever its result, anticipate its aftermath. They have to convince the Continent that the new Europe they are advocating — great nations voluntarily exchanging goods, people and ideas — will be a better way to coexist and benefit from each other.