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Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault wants “more Europe” while President François Hollande warns of Brexit’s “consequences” (©Chesnot/Getty Images)

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.

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April 13th, 2016
12:04 PM
The rationale of Brexiters is as varied and often inconsistent as you say in this generous and intelligent article, and many do confound essentially domestic problems with larger political ones caused by the EU. Even so, the EU does affect domestic British politics, including one of your examples. Mrs May is in some ways obliged to be unpleasant about overstaying students because the Government was elected with reduction of immigration as a mandate (it was in the manifesto), but with immigration from the EU being essentially uncontrolled, the only target could possibly be non-EU immigration. This has led to being unpleasant to (say) Chinese students (even though universities depend on them for income), and downright nasty to many who came from the US and Commonwealth countries who now face deportation for not earning more than the median salary. (If Brexit came about, I'd be equally scathing about immigration bias against students, researchers and workers from the EU: we could instead operate a modern points system like other globally-oriented countries.)

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