Sir Basil Markesinis, world-renowned scholar of comparative law ‘wise as a tree full of owls’ – obituary
The multilingual, cosmopolitan son of a former prime minister of Greece, Markesinis held, successively, the chairs of European Law and then Comparative Law at the University of Oxford, where he founded the Oxford Institute of European and Comparative Law.
Moving to London as Professor of Common and Civil Law at University College (UCL), he established the Institute of Global Law (“exceeded only by galactic”, observed one wag), holding the position simultaneously with a part-time chair at the University of Texas at Austin, where a legal colleague was quoted as describing him as “one active b—-r and as wise as a tree full of owls”.
He was diminutive in physical stature – not much taller than the Bernese mountain dogs in whose company he was frequently to be found – and, despite an aversion to many forms of food other than chocolate, somewhat stout. The charm of his accomplished wife Eugenie (née Trypanis), together with his own mischievous sense of humour, made their hospitality (provided in elegant surroundings) an eagerly anticipated delight for generations of students and eminent lawyers – for whom he formed strong affections and deep loyalties, matched by equally strong disapproval of those of whom he held a lower view.
Markesinis’s love and knowledge of European languages and culture was as wide and rich as his familiarity with legal systems. In a 2007 interview with The Daily Telegraph’s then legal affairs editor Joshua Rozenberg, he explained that understanding linguistic and conceptual differences and differences in mentality between cultures was fundamental to his teaching: “That does not mean that English law is suddenly going to become German law, or French law. But it does mean that by talking, and exchanging ideas, lawyers can learn – and understand – their own system.”
In the classroom, Markesinis used comparative law to preach cultural tolerance. “We live in a shrinking world,” he said. “The question is, how can you go behind the facade that separates us and discover the similarities? . . . I’ve found that, by looking at what other people are doing, we can sometimes be humbled and we can sometimes be proud.”
The starting point for his career was a passionate belief in the international legal role of Britain, dating back to when the country was led into the then European Economic Community by Edward Heath. At a book-signing in the 1970s for his work Sailing, Markesinis persuaded the former prime minister to sign instead a copy of the EEC membership treaty. In 2002 he would edit and contribute to The British Contribution to the Europe of the Twenty-First Century.
Later on, though bullish about Britain’s membership, he grew ambivalent about the direction in which the EU was heading, concerned by burgeoning red tape – and by the fact that the European institutions had not developed properly to accommodate a much bigger membership.
As Europe’s leading authority on international tort litigation and the author of many standard texts, Markesinis’s opinions often proved critical in landmark cases across the Continent.
These included, in Britain, the Fairchild judgment of 2002, when the law lords allowed the widow of a worker who had died from asbestos-related cancer to sue any one of several former employers without proving which one had been responsible for his illness – something that was beyond the capacity of medical science to establish. In following continental legal concepts rather than English law on this point, the law lords drew on Markesinis’s study of German law.
While his legal studies won Markesinis world renown, his popularity with students (he lectured at 25 law schools around the world) owed much to his colourful anecdotes about music, art and literature – and to his interest in their future careers. It was not unknown for him to call on his extensive acquaintance in the legal profession to elicit interviews for students who had, in his opinion, been unfairly overlooked.
Among more than 30 published books (not to mention countless articles in learned journals) were studies of psychological problems in ancient Greek tragedies – and Good and Evil in Art and Law. Drawing on embodiments of evil such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Goethe’s Faust and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Markesinis noted that, in art at least, Satan usually has the best lines.
It is, he argued, the role both of great art and of the law to remind people that those society regards as most evil often act out of complex motives: “However base, nasty, uninspiring or downright evil they may be, the law will treat its villains better than ‘divine justice’ does its own.”
One of two children, Basil Spyridonos Markesinis was born on July 10 1944 in German-occupied Athens to Spyridon “Spyros” Markesinis (or Markezinis), a Greek father of Venetian ancestry, and a British-born mother, Leta, née Xydis, whose Greek family from the island of Chios had escaped to Britain in the 1820s.
Spyros Markesinis, a lawyer and politician, had been a leader in the Greek resistance, but would become famous – or notorious – for having served as prime minister of Greece in 1973 during an abortive attempt at democratisation of the Greek military regime, his brevity in office (48 days) comparable to that of Liz Truss.
Markesinis attended law school at the University of Athens at 15, graduating aged 19 and becoming an assistant professor of Law at the university aged 21. He took a doctorate in Paris and then another at Cambridge, where he was a Gulbenkian Research Fellow at Churchill College from 1970 to 1974. He was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1973.
He remained at Cambridge as a Fellow of Trinity College and university lecturer in Law until 1986, when he was appointed Denning Professor of Comparative Law at Queen Mary College, University of London (now Queen Mary University London) and deputy director of the university’s Centre for Commercial Law Studies.
After two years (1993–95) as Professor of European Private Law at UCL, in 1995 he moved to Oxford as Clifford Chance Professor of European Law and founder director of the Centre (now Institute) of European and Comparative Law. Then from 1999 he was Professor of Comparative Law, with fellowships at (successively) Lady Margaret Hall and Brasenose. He returned to UCL in 2001 as Professor of Common Law and Civil Law, and Chairman of the Institute of Global Law.
Alongside these appointments he held visiting professorships around Europe and the US, and was founder director of the Institute of Anglo-American Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. At various times he worked as an advocate to the Greek Supreme Court, as an adviser to the president of the French Court of Cassation – the equivalent of Britain’s Supreme Court – and as senior adviser on European Affairs to the law firm Clifford Chance. He was Jamail Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of Texas, Austin, from 1998 to 2014, retiring as Emeritus Professor of Comparative Law.
Markesinis wrote widely on foreign policy and in 2010 published a seminal work on Greek foreign policy. During the Greek economic crisis of 2008-15 he became a pundit whose views were widely broadcast in the Greek media. At one point it seemed possible that he might be called upon to replicate his father’s stint as prime minister – and he was indeed found by friends beside his pool in France contemplating the construction of a government.
In 2007, as US troops began their withdrawal from Iraq, in an article in The Guardian he observed that if Washington hoped to retreat from Iraq without igniting a Middle East powder-keg, the help of Russia would be crucial. Unfortunately, however, “American treatment of Russia on a whole range of issues has nourished resentment and assisted the reawakening of Russian national pride. The Russians had to stomach this in the late 90s. Not any longer, however, given their newly discovered wealth in oil and gas.”
To avoid a “generation of conflict”, the West should seek an accommodation with Russia across a broad spectrum of issues: “This will be neither easy nor painless, but the alternative is more of the same… an unending and unnecessary clash of cultures and religions, terrorism the only winner.”
Among honours too numerous to list, Markesinis held fellowships at several national academies, including the British Academy and the Institut de France – one of only a few British academics to receive the accolade. In 1995 he was appointed a Chevalier of the French Légion d’honneur (later raised to Officier and in 2004 Commandeur), and in 2007 he was awarded the blue sash and gold insignia of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, only the sixth Englishman to receive France’s highest honour since it was created by Charles de Gaulle in 1963.
He was a Knight Commander of Germany’s Order of Merit, a Knight Grand Cross of Italy’s Order of Merit and a Commander of the Greek Order of Honour. In Britain he was appointed an honorary silk in 1998 and knighted in 2005 for his contributions to international legal relations.
In 1970 he married Eugenie, who survives him with a daughter and a son.
Sir Basil Markesinis, born July 10 1944, died April 24 2023
Utterly impressive Sir Basil!
Memory Eternal. ⭐️
Αιωνία μνήμη. Καλό ταξίδι.