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 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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!