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‘Towards a European Union of the Citizens’ - Address to the European Parliament

Strasbourg, 17th April 2013

Instead of a discourse that might define Europe as simply an economic space of contestation between the strong and the weak, our citizens yearn for the language of solidarity, of cohesion, for a generous inclusive rhetoric that is appropriate to an evolving political union.

A Uachtaráin, a Chomhaltaí de Pharlaimint na hEorpa, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt leis an tionól seo ina dtugtar le chéile ionadaithe na saoránach, arna dtoghadh go díreach agus go daonlathach, ó na seacht mballstát fichead, ocht gcinn fichead go luath, den Aontas Eorpach.  

[Mr. President, Members of the European Parliament, may I thank you for giving me the opportunity of addressing this assembly which brings together the democratically, directly elected, representatives of the citizens of the 27 member states, soon to be 28, of the European Union.]

I address you mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, as President of Ireland, an island that has always been connected to matters European; a country that has always looked outward; a people with a very strong connection with the cultures and learning of Europe in all its diversity from ancient times; and a nation that has valued that European vocation through every century into the present when Ireland holds, for the seventh time, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers in our fortieth year of membership of the Union.   

We Irish have sent wave after wave of our people abroad. Sometimes they have left voluntarily, seeking the experience of a wider world, more times involuntarily, due to economic circumstances, or more tragically, as in the second half of the 19th century to escape famine and its consequences. 

As a consequence, we Irish have migration, exile and the integration of strangers and strangeness at the heart of our cultural experience and our consciousness. 

Be it in our ancient Celtic connections, in our continuous connection with European scholarship, or in our modern consistent support for European unity, we have been European in our consciousness and commitment. Europe has always had an existence in the Irish mind.

In our own Gaelic language the mythic stories of Europe have always been present and some of our modern plays recall the use that was made of the classical sources of Greek and Roman myths in the Gaelic hedge schools that preceded the widespread use of the English language. Imposed as a new state vernacular, adopted as a necessary preparation for emigration, learned as the basic literacy required for contact with the scattered family members, for one purpose or many, English became the dominant language and would, in its turn, be changed by Irish writers from the 19th century.

The Irish language that preceded English had been deeply influenced by ancient European myths, particularly the great myths of sea and exile such as that of Homer’s Odyssey. In the areas of literature, the peoples of Europe have had an old and enduring sense of respect for what is a cultural diversity frequently drawn from a shared body of myth.

The Irish connection with Europe was also driven, in different centuries, by the impulse for alliances in the task of achieving freedom, and when it was not forthcoming, or losses ensued, Irish soldiers went on to serve in the courts of European empires and in the wars that were the choice of such empires.

It was, however, in the tasks of the mind and the spirit that the Irish sought to make their greatest contribution. Thus it was that in July 1950 the then Irish Prime Minister, John A. Costello, together with the Irish Foreign Minister, Nobel Peace Laureate, and founding member of Amnesty International, Sean McBride travelled to Luxeuil-Les-Bains to officially celebrate the 1400th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest Irish and European saints and scholars, Columbanus. It was Columbanus who, with St. Gall and others, established centres of learning, manuscript illumination, monasteries and communities across Europe from the North of Ireland to Bobbio, where Columbanus actually died.

The Peregrinatio of such Irish scholars as Columba included Iona, Lindisfarne, Glastonbury, Luxeuil, Péronne, St. Gallen, Bobbio, Würzburg, Regensburg, Trier, Salzburg, Vienna and Kiev. In all of these places these Irish scholars and their recruited scholarly allies left a legacy that endures in memory to this day. Their belief was that intellectual work and heritage matters, was something to be made safe for future generations, be it in the tradition of reflection, manuscript, illumination or prayer. 

We contemporary Europeans should not forget, of course, that we owe a similar debt to the Moorish scholars who, in different circumstances, saved the founding thoughts of the Greek world in southern Spain.

It is of the spirit of citizenship as it might be at a European level, as might motivate Europeans who want to give the two words – European and Union – a sense of fulfilment, and of human flourishing, that I wish to speak of in this year that has been dedicated as “European Year of the Citizen”.

But one more word about that meeting in Luxeuil-Les-Bains in July 1950. No more than some meetings of the contemporary period, was its real agenda publicly indicated. It was declared to be ecclesiastical in purpose; after all, the Papal Nuncio to France, Monsignor Roncalli, later to be Pope John XXIII, was present, as was the Bishop of Bobbio. But we now know, from the work of the distinguished scholar of the Sorbonne Marguerite-Marie Dubois, modernist, linguist, philosopher and lexicographer, that the meeting was really organized so as to facilitate a meeting of Robert Schuman, Foreign Minister of France, with like minded others from a number of European countries anxious to test his great idea for the coming together of the countries of Europe.

Schuman, reached back to recall the early monastic perigrinatio and declared Columbanus to be “the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe”.

The 1950 meeting of Schuman and others had been preceded, we must never forget, by a half century marked by war. In the words of Amartya Sen:

“it was the terrible consequence of the two world wars in the 20th century with its floods of European blood which firmly established the urgent need for political unity in Europe.”

He went on to quote the great poet, Auden who wrote in 1939 on the eve of World War II:

“In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark

And the living nations wait

Each sequestered in its hate.”

The Schuman meeting, and the others which followed it, assisted by such as Jean Monnet, was responding to near and terrible events. But we should never forget, and I emphasise it today, that in their response they recognised, and drew on, the rich scholarship, philosophy, moral instincts and generous impulses of European thought as they sought, not only to replace war with peace, but more importantly, to offer a vision of Europe’s people working together in an inclusive way.

They reached back but also, taking from the work of utopian and ethical visionaries, they constructed a realistic strategy for sustaining peace and acting in solidarity. What is more realistic than a strategy for harmony and peace? What is more awful than war?

Yet the inspiration and the achievements of the founders of the European Union cannot be taken for granted. Today, citizens in Europe are threatened with an unconscious drift to disharmony, a loss of social cohesion, a recurrence of racism and a deficit of democratic accountability. These threatening clouds hang over a Europe that in more hopeful times, chose to base its anthem, rather than on anything contemporary, on Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘Ode to Joy’ and its musical setting by Ludwig van Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. 

The founders of the European Union, then, had crafted a vision. And in doing so they were not being merely idealistic; they were realists with a program, responding to the best ethical impulses and decencies of a continent torn by war. They were authentic, as we must be now, in their dialogue with our citizens whose anxieties are matters which must take priority in our policy prescriptions.

Centuries of effort have been invested by European citizens in securing the vote. It is to Parliament that citizens look for accountability, for strategic alternatives. If national parliaments, if the European Parliament, were to lose the capacity to deliver accountability where else might it be found? Is there an alternative that can meet the requirements of a deliberative democracy?

I am conscious, in this year of the European Citizen, that as parliamentarians you are the elected component of the European Union, elected by citizens from diverse electorates on the same day. I want to wish you well in all your deliberations together, and particularly in your dialogue with your electorate – the citizens of Europe. They, the citizens, place their trust in parliament when they vote and they rightly have expectations of parliaments responding to their needs. I very much welcome the influence and decision-making powers that the European Parliament has won in relation to the multi-annual budgeting process and wish you well in discharging that responsibility on behalf of the citizens of Europe.

Mr. President,

When Václav Havel addressed this institution in March 1994 – in a speech describing the inevitability of enlargement – he said that he did not believe that

“the idea of a European Union simply fell out of the sky, or was born in the laboratory of political theoreticians or on the drawing boards of political engineers”.

Rather, he said:

“It grew quite naturally out of an understanding that European integrity was a fact of life, and from the efforts of many generations of Europeans to project the idea of unity into a specific ‘ supranational’ European structure”.

He said that he had no fear of the Union becoming a “monstrous super state”. On the contrary, he saw it

“as the systemic creation of a space that allows the autonomous components of Europe to develop freely and in their own way in an environment of lasting security and mutually beneficial co-operation”.

That belief in the greater Europe – a Europe of unity, of diversity, of mutually beneficial co-operation, a Union of creative space – is what we must seek now as our project. We are challenged to choose between, on the one hand, the founding values of a Union of peoples and States, peoples with histories, contexts and cultures and, on the other hand, an abstraction – a ‘de-peopled’ economic space without a history, a people, or a culture, which demands an unaccountable fiscal compliance, irrespective of the social consequences.

In his address to this Parliament, Havel also spoke of a disturbing feeling he had when reading the Maastricht Treaty. Confronted with this complex and diverse legal and economic order, he felt, he said that:

“I was looking into the inner workings of an absolutely perfect and immensely ingenious modern machine .... something was seriously missing, something that could be called, in a rather simplified way, a spiritual or moral or emotional dimension. The Treaty addressed my reason, but not my heart.”

Václav Havel feared that winter of cold, calculating irrationality that had replaced reason, as had been envisaged by Max Weber, a winter that threatened the promise of spring with its new growth and renewal.  

In these difficult times for so many Europeans, this strikes me as a profoundly relevant observation. We live in exceptionally testing times for many Europeans, including those of us in Ireland. 

How would the founders of the European Union respond to our present circumstances you might ask? 

We know how hard the institutions, including this one, have worked to overcome the most serious economic crisis the Union has faced; how they have struggled to match the speed of their reaction to the ferocity of its onslaught. At European Union level we have seen new laws, new Treaties, new rules and regulations put in place. The security of the Union’s currency, the Euro has been underpinned, the rules reinforced, rescue mechanisms have been drafted and partially put in place. A new commitment to creating a banking union has been forged. 

While this has been, and is, deeply important work, many ask what values have been taken into account, what is forgotten in these actions. For example, we seem so distant now from a time when, as a concept, cohesion enjoyed a parallel status with competition, such as it did in the Lisbon Treaty.

We cannot ignore the fact that European citizens are suffering the consequences of actions and opinions of bodies such as rating agencies, which, unlike Parliaments, are unaccountable. Many of our citizens regard the response to the crisis as disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity. They feel that the economic narrative of recent years has been driven by dry technical concerns; for example, by calculations geared primarily by a consideration of the impact on speculative markets, rather than by sufficient compassion and empathy with the predicament of European citizens who are members of a Union.  

In facing up to the challenges Europe currently faces, particularly in relation to unemployment, we cannot afford to place our singular trust in a version of an economicist theory whose assumptions are questionable and indifferent to social consequences in terms of their outcome. Instead of a discourse that might define Europe as simply an economic space of contestation between the strong and the weak, our citizens yearn for the language of solidarity, of cohesion, for a generous inclusive rhetoric that is appropriate to an evolving political union.

This is a serious challenge, not least because of the risk that the unfolding economic crisis will lead to an even deeper crisis of legitimacy for the Union. The Union in its founding treaties is fundamentally grounded in values – respect for personal dignity; freedom; democracy; equality; the rule of law and respect for human rights.

The Union draws its legitimacy from the support of its citizens. That connection with the citizens – their belief that the European Union is of them and for them – is fundamental. Without it, we are adrift. Citizens need an appeal to their heart as well as their reason. They need reassurance now that the Union will keep faith with its founding treaties.  

It is many years since Jacques Delors declared that Europe needs a soul, but it remains just as true. We should never forget that we are the inheritors of a profoundly important set of European values – Greek democracy, Roman law, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the reformation, the enlightenment, the great democratic revolution that began in France. Europe is therefore more than an economic space of contestation in which our citizens are invited or required to deliver up their lives in the service of an abstract model of economy and society whose core assumptions they may not question or put to democratic test in elections.

The values that link us together as a family – from North to South; from East to West – give us coherence as a society, a community striving together – those values should sustain us in time of need. Our fates are inextricably bound up in each other; as the Old Irish proverb puts it, ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine - people live in each others’ shadows.

As we face into the future, we need to draw strength from the founding values of the Union. These include cohesion and solidarity – among Member States, among the citizens of our Union, and between the European Union and the rest of the world. We need to apply ourselves to building a better future together – as Jacques Delors also said of this present crisis:

“Europe does not just need fire-fighters, it needs architects too”.

A first and urgent task must be to get Europe back to sustainable and fulfilling employment and to real growth. There is nothing more corrosive to society and more crushing to an individual than endemic unemployment, particularly among the young. Today there are 26 million people across the Union without work, and 115 million in or threatened with poverty. We cannot allow this to continue. 

Irish Presidencies have always drawn from the spirit of the founding treaties and the current Irish Presidency has put job creation right at the top of the agenda. The European Council has agreed that addressing unemployment is the most important social challenge we face. At last month’s Social Summit, you, Mr President, rightly warned of the repercussions of the spread of unemployment and poverty across the Union.

As it seems that the Union is of one mind in the matter, the time for action is now and the citizens of Europe want the light, the hope and the delivery of new models and courageous action. 

I commend the agreement reached in the European Council in February on the Youth Employment Initiative, and the subsequent proposals from the Commission to make it operational by the start of next year. I also very much welcome the agreement reached in the Council on the Youth Guarantee that will ensure all young people under the age of 25 receive a good quality offer of employment, education, apprenticeship or training within four months of being unemployed.

But we need to do more. We need to ensure that women participate in the workplace as equals; that older workers are not left on the sidelines; and that the long-term unemployed are fully equipped to find their way back into today’s work place. We must, above all, ensure that a loss of employment does not lead to exclusion from participation, particularly in the cultural space of one’s community. 

We need also to consider how to encourage people to create jobs. We need to value and support our small and medium-sized enterprises, the lifeblood of so many of our communities. We need to sustain those that want to create opportunity for themselves and for others. We need to encourage creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship. 

There is a need for the speedy implementation of the agreed investment fund, and for an expanded role perhaps for the European Investment Bank. The Union’s institutions must work together – and be seen to work together – for the good of all Europeans, and in the interests of a better future.

As democrats, we must ensure that our actions are underpinned by, and are a true reflection of, the present and future welfare of all our people. That is not to say that we should be moved and swayed by an inchoate populism or by the quest for popularity at any price – in a crisis such as ours there can be no easy or painless answers. But policies have to be justified in terms of their outcomes in the near and medium future. Abstract cyclical theories are never more than instrumental in tentative calculation and forecasting.

That is something of which we must always be keenly aware. Ensuring just outcomes must be at the heart of our dialogue as Europeans, especially in this Year of Citizens. European Citizens, I believe, yearn for their economies to be placed in a frame of justice, particularly, intergenerational justice.

A generous vision of Europe is, of course, not one that looks solely inwards. The European model has inspired many others on their journey to peace and democratic institutions. While its light may not have dazzled as brightly in recent years, Europe can yet be a beacon of hope and encouragement for many less fortunate people in the world. It can give a lead, for example, with a unified voice on climate change, recognising that those least contributing to our global problem are paying the highest price, even as we meet today.

How the European Union engages with the rest of the world is a major test of its authority and credibility. Will the Union allow its current economic difficulties to undermine its commitment on the great global challenges of our day – hunger, poverty, human rights, climate justice? I hope not. Will we reaffirm the generous idealism at the heart of the European vision by re-dedicating ourselves to tackling these problems in solidarity with other partners? I hope we do. The measures that replace the Millennium Development Goals – how they respect diversity, recognise different paths to development and have human rights at their centre – will be a major test for Europe and the global community.

I believe that a European Union that has the courage to face all of its past, including its periods of empire, with honesty, and its future with a commitment to values that are inclusive of all humanity, with a discourse that respects diversity, has a profound contribution to make – not only to its own citizens in Europe but to the global community. It can give a lead in creating a form of ethical globalisation that recognises intergenerational responsibilities.

Such an integrated discourse as might allow for this is, however, I believe, missing just now. The prevailing narrative seems to be trapped intellectually in a structure of thought which it appears unable to challenge, from which it seems unable, or at times even unwilling, to escape. 

In the absence of a consideration of other possible models or approaches, we are in danger of drifting into, and sustaining, a kind of moral and intellectual impotence. Yet we have available to us a rich legacy of intellectual, radical work upon which we could draw.

There is, in our shared intellectual heritage – for example in the energetic pursuit of new thought that characterised the European Enlightenment, itself formed from the thought of other ancient Enlightenments – some powerful examples of dissident and radical thought. Let us never forget the singular example given by those dissident thinkers, Diderot, Kant or Herder. They in their times saw the flaw in the Enlightenment thinking that supported empire, with its insatiable drive, and courageously challenged it through their books, pamphlets and public expressions. 

The strand of economics which, as a hegemonic model of economic theory, holds sway today is, of course, useful for limited and defined tasks. It is insufficient however for our problems and our future. We need a new substantive, political economy and an emancipatory discourse to deliver it, and I suggest that this is possible.

There is an urgent need for new models of connection between economy, society and policy. These are essential for genuine, pluralist choices in policy, not to speak of democratic accountability and relevance, if we are to address the current challenges. As European Parliamentarians, I encourage you to let these new models into the European discourse, give them space in the committee structure of the Parliament and the institutional structure of the Union.

But to achieve that discourse the role of public intellectuals is also a vital one. They are called upon, I suggest, to state publicly and unequivocally that the problems of Europe are not simply technical, and certainly not solely amenable to solution by technocratic measures at the expense of democratic accountability. The suggestion that citizens and their representatives are not fiscally or economically literate enough to carry the decision making necessary for policies that impinge on their lives – be it unemployment, housing, health, education or the environment – has the most serious implications in legitimacy terms.

It is not sufficient to state this as a fear. It is necessary to analyse how we came to such a point of intellectual impotence. Part of the answer lies in how we allowed a crude anti-intellectualism to come to prevail in politics. How we became dependent on a single hegemonic failing paradigm, how we allowed tools of quantification, valuable in their own realm, to supplant considerations of ethics, philosophy, political thought, political rhetoric, or real options in election manifestos; these are matters for reflection and a firm purpose of amendment.

The rhetoric that accompanies the concept of a disembodied economy is very different to the rhetoric that addresses the history, the fullness of life, the contemporary challenges, and the culture of peoples, of a European Union. The economy of abstraction that serves as substitute for a people, a society, a state, is dangerous in its rejection of cohesion and I believe is capable of converting an economic recession into a crisis of legitimacy.  

A discourse adequate to carry the responsibilities of memory, ethical remembrance, and to engage citizens in a dialogue about their lives is very different from the use of a single version of economics as a project for the Union. A disembodied version of the economic space lacks the connection with history, contemporary challenges, and it also lacks the moral connection with the ethics and solidarity we now need. Such a model evades rather than faces our present challenges.

A European Union – if it is to be respected as the great project it is and can be – must draw on the intellectual heritage, the intellectual imaginings, and the existing talents and capacity of the peoples of Europe. It is a fully authentic Union if it is characterised by solidarity.

Mar focal scoir [to conclude],

If it is not of this authentic character just now, it must be made so by changes in consciousness and commitment, and through reasserting the idealism, intellectual strength and moral courage that drove the founding fathers of the Union. European Member States are peoples, with histories, with current needs, with possibilities to be shared.

If we were, as an alternative, to regard our people as dependent variables to the opinions of rating agencies, agencies unaccountable to any demos, and indeed found to be fallible on occasion, then instead of being citizens we would be reduced to the status of mere consumers; pawns in a speculative chess board of fiscal moves, in a game derived from assumptions that are weak, untestable or more frequently undeclared.

To ask that our decisions be normative rather than narrowly, fiscally technocratically defined entails, I suggest, more than an integration of our intellectual capacities. It is to defend and deepen democracy. I readily acknowledge the utility in so many areas of logistical economics. However, I believe that if its methods are elevated to being a substitute for the integrated multi-disciplinary scholarship that is needed to address the varying contexts and contingencies of current challenges, such a sole reliance on a technocratic approach would be markedly insufficient.

If we are to deliver the European Union of peace and prosperity that the founders envisaged, and that I believe the citizens of Europe yearn for beyond the understandable fear of present circumstances, a strategy that draws on the world views of all of the social sciences, and ethics and philosophy is required.

President, Members of Parliament,

From the flux of diverse histories, from our current problems, from our fears and our aspirations I hope will emerge a response that constitutes a tapestry of many colours, of different strengths in its threads; and, in its design, evocative of what memory has made endure, and the human spirit has invested with hope. Whether it is made out of wondrous reason or woven with a prayer will not matter. What matters is that it be work of us all, working together, in co-operation, cosmopolitan and open to the world, caring for it, in an inter-generationally responsible way, and embracing all our people as equal citizens.

We the citizens of the European Union want to make a real Union together, something indeed worthy of the “Ode to Joy”.

Our reward will be to exit the winter of shrunken intellectual and political life and embrace our commitments to the tasks with such new energy as will bring us a new season, a European Spring of new life, where political economy, made whole again, will live in the expanding space of justice.