President’s speech confronts challenges facing increasingly disillusioned Europe

Higgins’s allusions to shared ideas and values timely and apt

President Michael D Higgins addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

President Michael D Higgins addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters


As with his predecessor Mary McAleese in 2004, President Michael D Higgins addressed a packed European Parliament chamber yesterday on the occasion of Ireland’s presidency of the European Council.

His speech touched on some of the broad themes of European history and ideas, highlighting the shared values and intellectual heritage that have underpinned the emergence of Europe since antiquity.

But his address also confronted some of the very real challenges that face Europe as it strives to connect with an increasingly disillusioned public.

His address was timely. Immediately preceding his speech, the chamber had hosted a heated debate on Europe’s handling of the Cyprus crisis, with MEPs accusing European lawmakers, including economics commissioner Olli Rehn, of “destroying the promises and trust” of the European Union.

Similarly, Mr Higgins’s mention of the European values of “personal dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and respect for human rights” had a special resonance in light of the debate a couple of hours previously on recent constitutional changes in Hungary.

Conceptual focus
But despite the references to contemporary issues – most of which surfaced in the joint press conference with European Parliament president Martin Schulz afterwards – much of his focus was conceptual, as the President explored ideas of democracy and social renewal, and argued for the limitations of the prevalent economic model.

“Europe has always had an existence in the Irish mind,” he said, whether in “our ancient Celtic connections, in our continuous connection with European scholarship, or in our modern consistent support for European unity”.

He also highlighted the deep intellectual – and specifically literary – connections between Irish writers and the Continent, pointing to Irish writers’ particular connection with Homer’s Odyssey and its theme of exile. Here he was talking as a poet, placing himself alongside other contemporary Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland and Paul Muldoon, whose work explores the connections between a shared, ancient past deriving from European mythology and everyday contemporary life.

Despite its allusions to Europe’s difficulties, the President’s speech never mentioned a specific nation; rather he espoused the concept of pluralism, the importance of Europe’s collective intellectual and political heritage, and the need for solidarity.

For some, Mr Higgins’s speeches may be too abstract, too intellectual. But at times like these, getting behind the ideas and values that have shaped the European project may be a valuable exercise.

“What do we mean by Europe. What do we mean by the union?” the President asked yesterday. Never have these questions been more pertinent.