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Brexit: A Philosopher’s Tale

The complex and circuitous debate that is Brexit, and the British people’s apparent democratic decision to exit the EU, has provided Europe and the world with a seemingly endless conundrum which appears to be defeating anyone who enters this highly charged arena of modern politics.

Why is the EU so intransigent on so many key areas in the negotiations? Why is our decision to leave such an affront on this collective of EU nations that, now with 28 member states, has evolved into a club which even has its own currency? Why did Charles de Gaulle famously reject Britain’s application to join, not once, but twice? And why did Emmanuel Macron, the inconceivably young, but statesman-like president of a France hungry for change, declare after the disastrous Strasbourg summit that the British people had been sold a fraudulent referendum peddled to them by liars?

As the debates and awkward choreography dance moves of our current leader take us into autumn and closer to 29 March 2019 with the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, two books have given me a broader perspective on this modern European riddle. The first is Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950, Agnès Poirier’s forensic and fascinating review of the growth of intellectual ideas, art and politics that emerged from the ruins of a war weary, liberated Paris.

This highly readable montage from an impeccable line-up of sources not only plots the emergence of new philosophy and political thought, and the rise of existentialist superstars John Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and others, but also looks at how the devastating deprivation experienced by Parisians and the depravity of the German occupation led to a series of changes: a rethinking of humanity; the development of liberal ideas; a new philosophy of existence; a questioning of the dogma of communism; and the counter arguments posed by illiberal nationalist thought.

Plotting the intricate development of thoughts among writers, photographers, artists, fashion designers, musicians and a whole cast of players that defined the Left Bank, Poirier also helps us understand how the sum total of this collective pursuit of ideas created the initial mindset and political will that eventually led to the formation of the bureaucratic super-state known as the European Economic Community. While philosophy perhaps can’t be blamed for the emergence of the EU, reading Left Bank certainly gives weight to the argument that the French were, and perhaps still are, better than us at creating an intellectual salon where political thought and liberal ideas flourish within a wider cultural context.

This brings us to Revolution Francaise: Emmanuel Macron and the Quest to Reinvent a Nation, Sophie Pedder’s review of the first year of the titular president’s incumbency. It suggests that the political and philosophical angst that created such a feverish flourish of ideas and thought in the 1940s is now being reassessed by a president – who is a philosophy graduate and Rothschild banker, no less – with a truly radical vision for a modern France and a determination to restore faith in the European project. The dogma of Communism that troubled French philosophers and political activists in post-war Paris, and led to the exploration of a Third Way, may well be very familiar to President Macron as he looks at rebuilding his economically morose country within the challenging context of a European Union whose raison d’etre is being questioned through Brexit.

Neither of these books attempts to offer a solution, but reading them back to back would provide many of the current protagonists in this debate, both in the UK and Europe, with some invaluable perspectives.

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