The Fable of the World: A Philosophical Enquiry into Freedom in our Times

December 16, 2010

Opinions differ on whether the historical lineage of the idea of European unification is essentially pacifist (as in the writings of the Quaker William Penn), fascist (Hitler's European New Order being seen by some as a prototype of today's European Union), or simply the standpoint of the forward thinking and liberal minded. This last notion would take us from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's vision of "the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world" to William Beveridge's campaign for Federal Union and Clement Attlee's 1937 declaration that "Europe must federate or perish".

Gérard Mairet, an eminent French philosopher, has no time for such foothills and byways of political controversy. His route to the understanding of the EU proceeds via the philosophical summits of the analysis of sovereignty, from Machiavelli and Bodin through Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu to Rousseau and Hegel. He also draws on the founding fathers of international law, notably Hugo Grotius, to underline his argument that a major theme in the development of European states in the past five centuries has been the growth and the attempted "regulation" (light-touch, to be sure) of their habit of using military force against colonial conquests, recalcitrant internal elements and each other.

Mairet goes so far as to argue that the only stage at which a state can be described as fully sovereign is that reached by the states of Western Europe in the 20th century: by this time, having passed through Hobbes' "state of nature", they still shared the understanding that their differences may regularly, or even normally, be settled by war.

It is at this final stage of his argument that Mairet descends from his stratospheric level to offer a contribution to the mundane controversy about the EU's projected constitution, which was dividing Europe in 2004-05 when this book was being written. He suggests that as this group of states have brought their sovereignty to its "culmination" (including repeatedly committing high-level violence against one another), their logical next step should be to try something new, namely to pool their sovereignty in a union or federation.

Unfortunately, his comments and proposals are unpersuasive and even utopian. He argues that the European Parliament, being directly elected by Europe's voters, is a fully "sovereign parliament", and thus entitled to a preponderant role in the EU's constitution-making. Again, he proposes a short draft for discussion of the future constitution, which includes the provision that the signatories "have renounced the exercise of their sovereignty with regard to international politics and defence". The briefest consideration of Europe's chances of getting from "here" to "there" makes this the kind of project to which that great European Emile Noel (a mathematician by training) would have assigned "a probability not unadjacent to zero".

In any case, the "constitution now under discussion" disappeared after its rejection by French and Dutch voters in 2005, the year this book first appeared. The English publishers have not done too well in issuing in 2010 an English translation (even this superbly sensitive and readable one by Philip Derbyshire) of a text rendered partly obsolete by events. Although the author's magisterial survey of the great questions of political philosophy will remain valuable and stimulating, it may not shed much light on the problems of a European constitution when the idea comes around again.

The Fable of the World: A Philosophical Enquiry into Freedom in our Times

By Gérard Mairet. Seagull Books, 282pp, £18.50. ISBN 9781906497194.Published 11 October 2010.

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