PARIS — While leafing through the newspapers in an English pub last weekend, I was surprised to see The 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.