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Proud to be Brit during Brexit

This article is more than 12 months old

For the sake of the grouping, EU rulers must realise fundamental decisions cannot be made in the distant settings by faceless officials

This is a fine time to be British.

You would not, to be sure, think so from last Tuesday in London - as the House of Commons humiliated Prime Minister Theresa May by throwing out her plan for Brexit by an unprecedented 432 votes to 202.

That sparked a leadership challenge the next day that she narrowly survived.

Many could see the events as pure, destructive chaos.

A nationwide debate is under way on the nature of British - and by extension European - governance, which has rumbled under the surface for decades.

Like any such civic disruption, the Brexit vote exacts the price of economic instability.

Fear of this prompted me to vote to remain in the EU. That fear has spread: a poll this week showed that Remainers could outvote Brexiteers by as much as 10 per cent: a poll last month showed the gap at 18 per cent.

Indications like these encourage Remainers to call for a second referendum, a proposal which could cleave British politics into two warring camps.

Uncertainty attends every move: Such is the nature of a popular surge seeking - peacefully - a different relationship with political power.

Democratic turmoil has also come to Europe - but not to the European Union.

The two leaders most committed to reviving a movement to greater EU integration - French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel - are themselves both much weakened at home.

The Brussels leadership of the EU - Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk - seem not to have grasped that Brexit, and the surge of France's "gilets jaunes" protesters, are consequential movements not just for Britain and France, but for the EU as well.

Herein lies the central problem of the EU now.

It has chosen to present itself as an unbroken front of 27 states wholly united against the renegade 28th, the UK.

They have entrusted the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier, to set out the hard facts of a deal which lays down a two-year withdrawal period in which most EU rules would continue to apply, with a severance payment of £39 billion (S$68.2 billion).

Yet the hard front is an illusion.

The Central European states - Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - want continued EU subsidies but recoil from its policies, especially taking a share of the immigrants within Europe.

The EU has to recognise the truth of its present condition and to work out how best to decouple from its counterproductive mission to federalise.

There should instead arise an EU of differing speeds, where neither a desire to form a federal state, nor one to retain sovereignty within nations, should be penalised, but accommodated.

An EU straitjacket now aggravates rather than solves problems, defeating its initial vision of the creation of a new world power dedicated to freedom.

The continent's rulers need to grasp what the British government has been forced to understand: that politics and economic decisions can no longer be located at a distance in institutions citizens do not understand, commanded by figures they do not know.

Britain can take real pride that a messy, fraught, passionate struggle over a fundamental principle of democratic and civic life is taking place within it. It should spread across the continent.

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.