By the time you read this, we’ll know whether Britain has voted to remain in the European Union or not. Here’s why, with a certain trepidation, I voted for Brexit. My unease derived not from a fear that change would unleash economic turmoil. Rather, I worried that this vote conflicted with my own cosmopolitan leanings. On reflection, I decided that by rejecting the EU I showed greater fellow feeling for the citizens of Europe and was more faithful to the continent’s highest ideals, than those who wish to remain.
Dealing with the economics first, leaving the single market would certainly create uncertainty. But developed economies have withstood far greater shocks. US growth, for instance, was only temporarily set back by the Great Depression. It’s inconceivable that a far less extreme event such as Brexit could by itself permanently damage Britain’s prospects. In reality, the greatest economic risk comes from the threat of retaliation by our erstwhile European partners. Given that Britain runs a large trade deficit with Europe, a trade war would be irrational. It reflects poorly on the EU that the threat should be credible.
But doesn’t a vote for Brexit reveal a petty nationalism, at odds with modern progressive values? Or, as the daughter of a friend put it: with my vote, I was putting myself in bad company. I don’t believe so. At university, I read 18th-century European history. The ideals of the Enlightenment – a preference for reason over tradition, for economic individualism over state control, for toleration over bigotry, and a belief that relationships between nations should be governed by the rule of law – remain close to my heart. The same notions guided the founding fathers of the postwar European project.
Over the course of its evolution, the EU has betrayed those ideals. In 1795, Immanuel Kant, who coined the term “Enlightenment” (in German, Aufklärung), wrote Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. In this essay, Kant showed profound respect for a state’s separate identity: a state “like the stem of a tree has its own root… to incorporate it as a graft on another state, is to destroy its existence as a moral person”. The consequence of bundling states together, even when done peacefully through dynastic alliances, would be that the “subjects of the state are used and abused as things that may be managed at will”.
Kant preferred republican government – one which gained the “consent of citizens as members of the state” – to despotism, characterised by “the irresponsible executive administration of the state by laws laid down and enacted by the same power that administers them”. Kant did propose an international federation of states to avoid war, but this “would not have to take the form of a State made up of these nations”. Such a super-state would not allow the existence of a free state, which by definition both made and applied its own laws.
“Each state places its majesty (for it is absurd to speak of the majesty of the people) in being subject to no external juridical restraint.” The European project has morphed from Kant’s international federation into something akin to the late Habsburg empire, a fractious conglomeration of nations riven by centripetal forces. The EU’s form of government, in Kantian terms, can be described as “despotic” since the public’s consent has not been gained. During the euro crisis, unemployment in parts of Europe has exceeded Great Depression levels.
If the EU cared for its citizens, or was properly accountable, substantive reforms would have been enacted. This hasn’t happened. As a result, discontent across Europe is fostering political extremism of the 1930s variety. My vote for Brexit shows solidarity with the European public and complies with the principles of Kant, the greatest of Enlightenment philosophers.