‘Ireland and Lithuania - Towards a shared future within the European Union’ - Address at Vytautas Magnus University
Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, 20 June 2018
you honour me with your presence and I thank you for your kind remarks,
Members of the Seimas,
Members of the Senate of the University,
May I begin by thanking you all for your hospitality and for the warmth of your welcome to this important centre of learning in Kaunas.
It is a great honour for me to receive this award from a University whose history so closely parallels that of modern Lithuania - tracing as it does its origins to the early days of the Republic, abolished during the dark days of Soviet occupation, and revived again as you reasserted your independence, The distinguished list of past recipients is truly humbling and I am profoundly moved to be placed amongst them.
I am conscious that I accept this award under the watchful gaze of this portrait of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
With the passage both of time and of his works into doctrine, it is perhaps easy to forget what a truly radical thinker Aquinas was. He was a man who looked at the world around him, a world in flux, and found the prevailing orthodoxy lacking. His voice was at its best a dissenting voice. With great courage and intellectual vigour, he enkindled a new and compelling paradigm of thought, accommodating both the demands for orthodoxy in a theology that not only nursed certainty but that sought to impose it and of theology and philosophy which had retained some categories of both wonder and experience - faith and reason – in ways which influenced Western thought for centuries.
Perhaps it was too heavy, that burden of injustices with which he struggled. I do not suggest he was the first, or indeed the only person, to explore these particular avenues of thought. But, in bequeathing us an almost unparalleled legacy of commitment to scholarship, a commitment he shared with such as Albertus Magnus and Bonaventure, he has left an indelible footprint on the landscape of human thought. Whether his works provide solace or provoke rebuttal, his intellectual legacy is proof that paradigms of thought are not eternal; they can and do change.
Today, we are so desperately in need of that kind of scholarly rigour and independence of thought: that capacity to question, to listen, to critically evaluate. To dissent without descending into demagoguery and retain the necessary elements of discourse. To dare to suggest novel ways of meeting the great challenges of our time. These are emancipatory skills, they are necessary for participatory citizenship, and they are skills which can be taught, and they are essential in protecting the citizens of now and of the future from the hubris of the strong.
As Aquinas said:
“It is better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths, than merely to contemplate.”
It is vital therefore that we, the academic community and public representatives alike, labour to ensure that our young people receive the fullest possible education; one that prepares them for life, as well as work. The value that this University places on the teaching of liberal arts is another of the many reasons that I prize the honour you have given me this afternoon.
One of the great rewards of the study of history is to learn to reflect on our past, to identify common threads, and, in so doing, to find keys to unlock pathways to our future.
For Ireland and Lithuania, when we look to our pasts, we see nations with deep historical roots and treasured cultural identities; both of which helped to sustain our sense of self in our long struggles for statehood. Thus I am particularly honoured to be in Lithuania in this the year of the centenary of your independence.
As you charted your course to national freedom, so too was my country making its own arduous journey to self-determination. In Ireland, we are in the midst of a Decade of Centenaries – a series of commemorations marking the momentous, revolutionary, and at times very different, approaches taken in the years leading to, and following, the foundation of our State. As President of Ireland, I have endeavoured to encourage a process of ethical remembrance – reflecting on those seminal events in a way that is sensitive to and accepting of the manifold – sometimes competing, sometimes absent – perspectives of our history. In doing so I have drawn on the work of writers such as Paul Ricoeur, Richard Kearney, Hannah Arendt and David Rieff.
Re-engaging with the past as a project that is ethically driven, seeking to understand and build a bridge to the other, creates a need to remember, to forgive, sometimes in the interest of ethics to park or forget and, ultimately, to release us from the confines of past events, so that we can be free to imagine a more fulfilling future. Conscious that I speak in a university, I would ask that, as citizens and academics, we must all value, deepen and extend what space there might be for such an inclusive discourse, all over Europe, and between previous European colonial powers and continents such as Africa and Latin America. History, with other categories in its historiography, open to real evidence, re-evaluation and indeed revision, is a vital part of citizenship and history belongs to all of our people.
In 1919, a year after you gained your independence, one of the early acts of the first Dáil Éireann, parliament of Ireland, was to issue a ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’. It was issued in three languages – Irish, French and English. It sought to establish the abiding principles upon which our foreign policy would rest. It stated that Ireland
‘believes in freedom and justice as the fundamental principles of international law, because she believes in a frank co-operation between the peoples for equal rights against the vested privileges of ancient tyrannies, because the permanent peace of Europe can never be secured by perpetuating military dominion for the profit of empire but only by establishing the control of government in every land upon the basis of the free will of a free people’.
We demonstrated our commitment to such fundamental principles by being one of only three States to have never, in any way, recognised the occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union. It is why on 23 August 1989 we marveled at that somatic act of solidarity – when some 2 million people from this country, from Latvia and from Estonia held hands to form a human chain over 600 kilometers long – an act of extraordinary peaceful defiance to reclaim your place amongst the free and independent nations of the world.
It is a matter of great pride to the people of Ireland that, less than 15 years later, you took your place amongst the Member States of the European Union in Dublin. The 1st of May, 2004, at a reception at Áras an Uachtaráin, the home of the President of Ireland, The Day of Welcomes, as we christened it, was a truly remarkable moment in the history of our Union. The late Seamus Heaney, who had such a great respect for, and whose work drew so heavily from, the rich tapestry of European culture, recited a poem written for the occasion:
“So on a day when newcomers appear
Let it be a homecoming and let us speak
The unstrung word, as it behoves us
Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare
Like ancient beacons signalling, peak to peak’’
As ever, indicating the power of poet to distill meaning and emotion, in just a few words he captured the essence of the occasion. This arrival of new members was a moment of healing and of hope – hope for the founding ideals upon which the Union was built. Our shared institutions and our shared values, it was felt, had a capacity for building bridges across a common space divided, that might have been at a time at the mercy of an imperialist tendency in the past and so recently and artificially divided by a wall, but that now has the capacity to make a new future, different from the old.
At a time when these founding ideals seem increasingly maligned, and the living memory of the great catastrophe that stands as background to the birth to our Union fades, it is critical that we remember that the European Union is first and foremost a Union founded upon the invocation of fundamental values. Forged from the embers of the Second World War, ours is a Union that seeks to be based on peace, freedom, and democracy, a Union based on the rule of law, respect for human rights, equality and human dignity. A Union with the capacity to leave the dark colonising past behind and to demonstrate cooperation and solidarity throughout the world, with all of humankind. These are values that can never be taken for granted or assumed to be unchallenged, particularly those who know only too well the pain and isolation that their absence causes.
As small, fledgling independent states, Ireland and Lithuania committed our people to these ideals and to each other. Our sovereignty, so long fought for, would be neither impinged nor extinguished – as it had been so often in our past – but would be shared, and in that sharing it would be expanded to create a common space, one that we share to this day, one in which our citizens travel, study, and work, encountering one another in a spirit of friendship and solidarity.
In the years since, our European destinies have been ever more intertwined, not least through the tens of thousands of your sons and daughters who now call Ireland home. They add so much to the vibrancy and texture of Irish life, but we Irish know only too well the gnawing ache that migrants, in their leaving, can carry with them, and the void that they leave behind at the point of origin, their home and community. After all, these feelings are at the centre of our literary and musical inheritance in both of our cases.
To borrow again from the words of my friend Seamus Heaney, they know what it is ‘to live in two places at the one time and in two times at the one place’. Yet, through them, and through our joint work in the European Union, we have come to know each other better. I am here today to celebrate that deepening friendship and to look to its future.
I greatly welcome our increased opportunities for engagement within the European Union which connects us across a vast range of areas – social, cultural, political and economic.
In a Union that urgently needs to address the challenges of sustainability and climate change – our last great gesture of hope internationally – ensuring that there are opportunities for our young people, the urgent need to rebuild economic and social cohesion, re-connect with the European Street, advocate for a more just international order, it is essential that we – Ireland and Lithuania – work together to build shared perspectives and to amplify our voices.
We may be nations with small populations on opposite sides of the continent, but it is clear that we share our responsibilities. We are committed to being at the heart of European policy making. Indeed, it is a responsibility and a right. In so being, we must be cognisant that the policy choices that we make have far reaching implications for human beings, for the most vulnerable amongst us, and for our increasingly fragile planet.
We must, all of us as members of the European Union, therefore look beyond the immediate policy challenges and towards the vista of our shared European future. When I visited Greece earlier this year I emphasised that the future of Europe cannot rest on a limited conversation between the strongest, nor, I should add, the most proximate.
The United Kingdom’s departure will have significant implications for all Member States, but nowhere will it be felt more keenly than in Ireland. The history of that which many refer to as ‘the Troubles’ on our island are well known, but perhaps less appreciated is the crucial role the European Union has played in the pursuit and maintenance of the cherished peace, which eluded us for so long.
The European Union has over the decades provided generous and timely political and financial support for peace and reconciliation on our island helping to foster new cross border and cross community relationships and linkages. More intangibly, but no less crucial, it has provided much of the wider context and framework for peace – a framework in which barriers melted away and cooperation in areas from tourism to agriculture, from education to civic society became not just possible but the norm.
I want to thank Lithuania, and all of our European partners, for the understanding they have demonstrated for Ireland’s unique concerns in the Brexit negotiations, and, in particular, for the resolute support you have shown in protecting the gains of the Peace Process and the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. There could be no more meaningful expression of European solidarity.
At the same time, we recognise that in a palpable sense, European solidarity is fraying. Solidarity is the cornerstone of our Union. Like the peace on our island, it must be fostered and cherished.
There is an undeniable discord on the European Street – a sense that social and economic cohesion has fractured. When he visited Ireland in February, Foreign Minister Linkevièius kindly participated in a debate in University College Cork on the theme of ‘Ireland and Lithuania in the European Union’. He described what we are experiencing as a ‘stress test’; a stress test of our European unity, our values and our leadership. I very much agree. The strength we must demonstrate together must, I believe, be value based, with a capacity to endure, one that will also have the capacity to defend multilateralism and resist any intimidation to resile to a privileging of militarism rather than diplomacy.
I am a firm believer that Ireland, and indeed Lithuania’s, destiny lies at the heart of a European Union that lives up to the very best ambitions of its founders, and to the aspirations of its citizens. The founders of European integration would have been amongst the first to call for us to embrace the plural debate needed to overcome our current – as I am in a school of theology, let me call it – crisis of European faith.
Yet, as Pope Francis reminded the leaders of the Union when he addressed them on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, a crisis is not only a dark moment of confusion and far, but also a conjuncture at which we see errors in full light, enabling us to see more clearly all the possibilities for a more hopeful future:
“The word ‘crisis’”, Pope Francis stated, “has its origin in the Greek verb kríno, which means to discern, to weigh, to assess. Ours is a time of discernment, one that invites us to determine what is essential and to build on it.”
Ireland, and many of the nation-states of Europe, have experienced profound and prolonged economic and social crises over the past ten years, some generated internally and some as a consequence of the Global Financial Crisis.
That larger global crisis revealed the weaknesses of the prevailing ideas and orthodoxies that preceded, and in some respects, created the conditions for the crisis itself. For far too much time a single economic discourse has dominated in our Union and across the world, one that was, and perhaps still remains, inadequately challenged and contested, and it has too often been presented as inevitable, rather than as a policy choice among many, which should be made by democratically elected governments. Our Union has been, at times, riven and divided by the multiple crises that we confront, and solidarity between Member States has been strained. We have too often, and times continue, to reduce the term European Union to the level of an oxymoron. We must stand up for the Social Europe that we know to be possible.
Now is indeed the time for discernment, and to all of us who believe not just in the best of our Union, but in democracy itself, the wide debate about the future nature of our Union should be affirming, not disheartening. We need to hear from the highest to the lowest level of the institutions of the European Union that a discourse on Social Europe is welcome, that critical and pluralist scholarship is welcome in that discourse. The evidence for such a willingness is weak. As that distinguished German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, has reminded us, without the constant exercise of public deliberation, without citizens being enabled to submit their arguments to rational disputation, democracy itself will not survive.
Our Union can no longer be constructed and reconstructed from above. If it is to survive in this new century, it must be also renewed and rebuilt from below. This is a project that must not become the preserve of the strong and powerful, whether in the form of a conversation between the larger states of our Union or the unaccountable and non-transparent economic actors which increasingly dominate the organisation of consumption, production and distribution. Those Member States, such as Ireland and Lithuania, that have endured long and unremitting struggles for national independence seek a Union of equals, one that acts for the benefit of all European citizens.
We have an egalitarian and humane European inheritance upon which to draw, one that encompasses the vast expanse in times and space that characterises our continent, from the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas to the samizdat poetry of Tomas Venclova. We often speak of the founders of the contemporary European Union, and while we should recognise the vision of those statesmen sixty years ago, we should also acknowledge the moral patrimony that was available to them and is available to us as we seek to reshape our shared Union.
In its founding moments, the European Union was not a project dedicated solely to the freedom of the markets or of capital. It drew on the rich patrimony I have mentioned. It envisioned a larger freedom, one that can only be achieved through the vindication of the fundamental social, economic and cultural rights.
One of the most morally compelling visions of European internationalism – considered one of the founding documents of European integration – emerged from the Italian resistance movement. I speak of the manifesto composed in captivity by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, one of the founders of the anti-fascist Giustizia e Libertà, on the island of Ventotene in 1941. That manifesto was remarkable for articulating the demand for a federation of European states dedicated to disarming the worst passions of European nationalisms, and in asserting that such a federation could only be achieved, and would only be preserved, if it was capable of continuing ‘the historical process of the struggle against social inequalities and privileges’. The home of the European Parliament, which gives democratic voice to the emerging European demos, is now named after Altiero Spinelli.
We might ask whether our Union is today capable, intellectually and institutionally, of given co-equal representation to the spirit of Ventotene and to the spirit of Frankfurt. For in this new century, we shall confront both new and old challenges: the pressing need for just and sustainable development; the necessity of protecting the human rights of those fleeing war, persecution and famine; the growing inequalities in income, opportunity and wealth both within and between countries; and above all, the urgent need to address the causes of climate change and to mitigate its consequences. We cannot continue to privilege economic models that only serve to widen inequalities, to create rather than mitigate instability, and to degrade rather than protect our environment.
These are not only European, but global, challenges, and they require global solutions. Three years ago, Pope Francis wrote of our duties to the other peoples of our planet:
‘in the present state of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.’
Our solidarity must extend beyond our borders. In this precarious world, global solidarity is the most important contribution we can make to peace and stability. In our shared commitment to undertake international peace support missions to prevent and resolve conflict in the support of the United Nations, Lithuania and Ireland give shape to that solidarity.
These commitments also demonstrate the important role that small nations can play in securing peace. As a small state, Ireland believes that the multilateralism to which I have referred as being now under so much serious threat is the best platform for projecting our values and our voice on the global stage. As we experience a worrying retreat from multilateralism, the European Union and its Member States must continue to work strongly in support of the United Nations with which we share not only important values, but that fundamental commitment to multilateralism in which so many of the peoples of the world place their hopes.
Peace cannot be built, nor can it be sustained, by any narrow diplomacy, defined by transaction, in service of a national advantage at the cost of other nations. Peace rests but upon a diplomacy of the common good, one built on mutual respect and understanding, one that is open to the possibilities of the future, one that rejects any invocation of fear. A European Union recoiling to a diplomacy reliant on fear, a European Union which defines security in terms of military preparedness alone, will be unable to meet the challenges of our century, nor will it be capable of demonstrating the solidarity demanded by the Paris Climate Accords and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We must craft a European Union based on hope and resolve as to values that can be shared one that unequivocally asserts that it is through deliberation that a community of nations can discern and give shape to a common good.
As I draw my remarks to a close I am reminded of the words of one of the distinguished recipients of the honour you have bestowed on me today and a native son of Lithuania, Czelaw Milosz:
Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
At this critical juncture in history, we have indeed been given the estate of the world to manage: we have available to us not only the valuable instruments of reason, but also the music of the heart. We must allow both to give us hope. Let us do it well, let us do it ethically, with humanity, humility and compassion in our hearts, and, most of all, let us do it together, le cheile.