Last week on these pages Sam Roggeveen lamented The Interpreter's failure to find internationally respected pundits or commentators willing to write in favour of Brexit. 'If publications such as this one', he wrote, 'are finding it hard to identify professional pundits to make the case for Brexit, that means the case against Brexit is being over-represented. That's concerning for the health of the public debate.'
So is there then an intellectually coherent case for Brexit? The best answer to that question (that I know of) comes from the pen of French political philosopher Pierre Manent of France's École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.
A long-time sceptic of European integration, Manent has not to my knowledge written directly in support of Britain's withdrawal from the EU. But his philosophical writings are rich in insights that explain the attraction of Brexit for its supporters (and among them I have to include myself, though as an Australian citizen resident elsewhere in the EU I have no vote in the matter) and which together amount to a coherent and compelling intellectual case for British withdrawal.
Moreover, Manent's work (and in particular his 2006 La Raison des Nations: Réflexions sur la démocratie en Europe) also helps explain why elite commentary in favour of Brexit, while by no means non-existent, is at least so difficult to come by.
But let us first address the arguments for leaving the EU. Of them all, the constitutional argument is the crux of the Leave position (rather than issues of economics or immigration, which are merely subsets of it). In Australia, as in most democracies, whether the economy is more or less heavily regulated in favour of labour or capital, more or less open to global trade, and whether it accepts more or fewer migrants and on what basis, rests upon the expression of the people's will in parliament.
In Britain, this is no longer the case, or not completely. Through the European Communities Act 1972, which established the supremacy of EU (European Commission) law over Britain's where the two conflict, to the most recent 2007 Lisbon Treaty, in vast areas of public policy Westminster has surrendered legislative authority to Brussels. On EU migration, industrial relations, fisheries, the environment and justice and home affairs (where the 2009 Charter of Fundamental Rights has created a list of rights flowing from 'EU citizenship', policed by the European Court of Justice over the head of Britain's judicial systems) the 'directives' and regulations issued by an unelected commission frame British life. Parliament cannot repeal them and no minister can be summoned to the Commons to defend or explain them.
Though Remain has (incredibly) tried to enlist the spirit of Churchill to its cause, there is no understating the dramatic rupture the EU represents in Britain's national story.
Where parliament was once 'omnicompetent', its powers are now bound. Established in England as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the principle of responsible government that has stood as the cornerstone of Australian democracy since its inception in the eastern colonies in 1855 has been abrogated in the country of its origin. And where Churchill, first as first lord of the admiralty in 1914, and ultimately as prime minister in 1940, urged the country to war to preserve the independence of its governing institutions from undue foreign influence, the mother of parliaments meekly receives sets of legislative instructions addressed to it from Belgium.
While raising the GST a few percentage points was the subject of weeks of sustained parliamentary and media debate in Australia, the British parliament no longer possesses the right to alter VAT unilaterally or abolish it completely on some or all goods, as the EU imposes a minimum rate. Similarly, EU law restricts parliament's powers to raise or lower excise duties within a certain range. As Labour's Tony Benn put it so articulately in The Spectator in 1975:
Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean...the end of our democratically elected parliament as the supreme law-making body in the United Kingdom.
The pro-EU reply to this argument is usually two-fold.
First, some argue that the old Bennite argument is alarmist and over-stated. National parliaments may have surrendered to Brussels the right to regulate the shape of bananas, cod quotas or the voltage of vacuum cleaners, but all political questions of substance (decisions of war and peace, the income tax and welfare spending) remain in Westminster's hands.
Second, even to the extent that it is true, the surrender (or 'pooling') of sovereignty in such matters is the price that has to be paid to suppress the national passions that led the continent into two bloody wars in the twentieth century, and it is more than made up for by the expanded personal and commercial rights that individuals have won under the EU's aegis. Democracy hasn't been subverted so much as lifted to a higher, post-national plane.
Who here is right? Consider Manent:
There is no doubt that the 'construction of Europe' signifies an extension of the rights of the individual, of the possibilities open to him, and therein lies the attraction of Europe for the citizens of the European nations, at least for those who feel that they are capable of taking advantage of these new possibilities. Yet the 'construction of Europe' means – for the moment at least and assuredly for a long time to come – a diminution of the powers of the citizen. Life for the European citizen is determined more and more not by the familiar national debate, as conflictual as it may be, but by the outcome of a European process that is much less comprehensible…
The 'construction of Europe' thus involves a continual diminution of the feeling of civic responsibility.
While this latter development is very worrisome to some, it is, by contrast, very attractive to others, especially those who place (and the spirit here is precisely that of the liberal, cosmopolitan and broadly internationalist elite that dominates public discourse all over the Western world and almost universally backs Remain) the expansion of the scope of their rights as individuals and consumers ahead of the enumeration of their duties and obligations as citizens.
In a way that will surely ring true for everyone familiar with post-Maastricht Treaty Europe, Manent describes a European Union on the path to becoming 'a vast space of civilization, subject to rules, offering immense possibilities to individuals capable of acting to their own advantage in accordance with uniform rules, but not a body politic that affords its citizens a common adventure, a "community of destiny".'
Is such a European civilization desirable?...Can human beings live fully without belonging to a body politic that claims their allegiance? Can they live only as economic and moral agents, free and mobile in a space of civilization?
The intellectual case for Brexit is essentially a 'no' in answer to those questions, making the case for Brexit not only historically, but also philosophically coherent in a British setting: the supremacy of parliament in all areas of public policy is the sine qua non of the nation's civic and political continuity. In Benn's words, not only has parliamentary democracy 'defended our basic liberties' and 'offered us the prospect of peaceful change', it has 'bound us together by creating a national framework of consent for all the laws under which we were governed.'
From a point of view such as Manent's, ultimately in the balance is the survival of the UK as a distinctive political community. But what in fact is not clear is the Remain answer to these questions. Manent asks:
'Does "Europe" mean the depoliticization, through denationalization, of the life of the European people, that is, the systematic reduction of their collective existence to the activities of civil society and the mechanisms of civilization – to just economics and culture? Or does "Europe" mean the construction of a new body politic, of a large, enormous nation?'
Leave's answers to these questions are as clear as they were in 1975. The tragedy of the referendum debate is rather that Remain has so far failed to dignify them with an answer, falling back instead on dire warnings of World War III and the looming spectre of an economic Dark Age.
Is it too late now to ask for an intellectual case for Remain?
Photo: Getty Images/Anwar Hussein