Chancellor: Why I have voted for Brexit

June 16, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. 

On June 23, Britain votes on whether to remain in the European Union. Being out of the country on that date, I applied for a postal vote. I have marked my ballot paper, with a certain trepidation, in favour of leaving the EU, or Brexit. At first I worried this vote conflicted with my 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.

Legions of economists, policymakers and political grandees from around the world have warned of the economic threat of Brexit. These voices lack credibility. None of the Remain economists, to my knowledge, anticipated the global financial crisis. The UK Treasury claims that British incomes will be lower for years after leaving the EU. The same Treasury, however, has consistently had problems forecasting next year’s UK GDP. Not long ago, many politicians and businesspeople argued that Britain would miss out if we didn’t join the European single currency. We now know that the real calamity would have been joining the euro.

In truth, the greatest economic risk posed by Brexit 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 is a poor reflection on the EU that such a threat should be credible.

Of course, leaving the single market creates uncertainty – a state of affairs which repels the modern breed of policymaker. In the past, developed economies have withstood far greater shocks. The growth of the U.S. economy, for instance, was only temporarily set back by the Great Depression. Nor did it take many years after 1945 for Germany’s output per capita to return to its pre-war trend. It’s inconceivable, in my view, that Brexit could by itself permanently damage Britain’s economic prospects.

Even if the economic arguments are overblown, doesn’t a vote for Brexit reveal an unattractive petty nationalism at odds with modern progressive values? Doesn’t my vote put me 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 tolerance 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 post-war European project.

The EU has since betrayed those ideals. In 1795, Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who coined the term “Enlightenment”, 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 defined a republican government as one that gained the “consent of citizens as members of the state”. He preferred this to despotism, characterised by “the irresponsible executive administration of the state by laws laid down and enacted by the same power that administers them”. While Kant proposed an international federation of states to avoid war, this “would not have to take the form of a State made up of these nations”. Such a superstate would not allow the existence of a free state, which by definition both made and applied its own laws: “Each state,” wrote Kant, “places its majesty (for it is absurd to speak of the majesty of the people) in being subject to no external juridical restraint”.

Since its inception in the 1950s, the European project has morphed from Kant’s ideal of an international federation into something akin to the late Habsburg Empire – a sprawling and fractious conglomeration of nations struggling against 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 interminable years of the euro crisis, unemployment in parts of Europe has exceeded Great Depression levels. The citizens of Greece, Spain and elsewhere have been force-fed austerity by the EU with little prospect of eventual economic recovery. 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. Sooner or later something must give.

A vote for Brexit, I believe, puts me in the best company. It shows solidarity with the long-suffering European public and complies with the principles of Kant, the greatest of Enlightenment philosophers.

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