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A Britain Hell Bent On Brexit Holds A Bigger Lesson For Europe

Theresa May arriving in Brussels, Belgium
Theresa May arriving in Brussels, Belgium


PARIS — While leafing through the newspapers in an English pub last weekend, I was surprised to seeThe Sunday Times, hardly a tabloid, portraying the three fiercest Brexiters as "musketeers." A rather flattering image assuming Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg — the three men in question — are not offended by such a Gascon comparison.

Throughout the weekend, the musketeers worked hard to get the prime minister, Theresa May, to get more radical in her negotiation with the European Union, which she did as early as that Monday by renewing Britain's commitment to leave the customs union. The musketeers were able to push her, above all, because they are not alone. They can count on the support not only of the overwhelming majority of their party, but also of a large part of the public: Opinion polls generally show no regrets about the June 2016 referendum.

But why such relentlessness? Why risk unrest in Ireland, economic recession and international isolation to escape the unthreatening European Court of Justice? Why is nobody, starting with the Labour Party, opposing this madness now that the consequences — on aviation, the fishing industry, finance, universities — are becoming more apparent every day? How can this nation of shopkeepers refuse a union based on free trade?

English freedoms are an ability to withstand popular opinions.

I had to admit my intellectual defeat and put down my copy of The Sunday Times. If I can't answer these questions, it's because they're not asked properly. If I persist like most continental commentators in finding the British attitude absurd, it's because I haven't understood it. So I immersed myself in André Maurois's A History of England, a perfect read for a rainy Sunday. In analyzing the Norman conquest — which the British will have the opportunity to meditate on now that we, the French, are lending them the Bayeux tapestry — Maurois reveals the key to the mystery. "The conquest became the starting point of English freedoms," he writes. Brexit, it appears, is its logical conclusion.

First and foremost, English freedoms are about respecting the vote. "Brexit means Brexit," as Theresa May put it, are not empty words. It means that the government should not cheat against a collective decision. Brexit just for show, effectively maintaining the United Kingdom under European rule, is unthinkable. This same conception of self-determination explains why Westminster conceded an independence referendum to Scotland, something our centralist French state — if we look at the government's attitude towards Corsica — would clearly be unable to do.

English freedoms are also about the attachment to a sovereignty that's based on the Parliament, whose central and undisputed role goes back at least to the days of Habeas Corpus. France, in contrast, kissed its sovereignty good-bye many times — handing it over to an emperor, a marshal or an all-powerful president. Little wonder that it's more comfortable transferring a good chunk of that independence to Brussels.

The British believe that democracy must remain representative, and the European Parliament, which doesn't even have the power to propose its own laws, cannot currently fulfill such a role. The success of Britain's backbenchers in their frenzied agitation is enough to demonstrate the influence that the people's representatives continue to exert on the composition and action of their government. The comparison with our French National Assembly is embarrassing.

English freedoms are, in the end, an ability to withstand popular opinions — the global doxa — regardless of how set-in-stone they appear. The hell with the experts from the Central Bank, the IMF and the Financial Times! Some matters of principle are more important than growth figures.

These fundamental elements of British identity have survived modernity and globalization. It's no coincidence that Darkest Hour, the current biopic on Churchill's rise to power in May 1940, is leading the British box office. A few adjustments with the facts notwithstanding, the film depicts the prime minister's refusal to allow any concession, and emphasizes the decisive function of the House of Commons, which has the last word on the destiny of the nation.

I am a committed European who is more sorry than ever about the outcome of the 2016 referendum. But I now see that the worst of Brexit is explained by Britain's best attributes, and that, paradoxically, in order to build the future of Europe, we would do well to draw inspiration from their conception of freedom.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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