Reclaiming the European Street is a collection of speeches on European themes delivered by President Michael D Higgins between 2016-2020. I had the honour of being present when President Higgins delivered his address, Solidarity in Europe: Achieving Authenticity on the European Street, in May 2018 at the European University Institute’s flagship annual event, The State of the Union.
The setting was the historic Refettorio where at another time the monks, joined on occasion by Cosimo de Medici, shared their communal meals in the historic Badia Fiesolana, the mother house of the EUI. Speeches are brought to life in delivery and President Higgins is a skilled orator. Four European heads of state spoke at the 2018 edition of the State of the Union but only one, Michael D, received a standing ovation.
Although the volume is a collection of speeches delivered at different times to very different audiences, there is remarkable continuity and coherence to the core arguments and ideas. The editors of the volume, Joachhim Fischer, University of Limerick and Fergal Lenehan, University of Jena have skilfully organised the speeches into five overarching themes that touch on history and memory, Social Europe, connecting European cultures and the future of the European Union (EU). The decision to translate three of the speeches into Irish, German and French is an appropriate celebration of the President’s commitment to cultural diversity and pluralism.
The introduction penned by the editors makes a compelling case for a close reading of the speeches as a major contribution to the necessary intellectual deliberation about Europe, the EU and its future. As the EU embarks on one more Conference on the Future of Europe, participants in these deliberations would benefit from grappling with the arguments and insights offered by President Higgins in Reclaiming the European Street. The “European Street” evokes the governed, citizens, not governments and for President Higgins, the EU must be reimagined from the bottom up not just the top down.
The President’s authenticity shines through-here we find vintage Michael D., the educator, the politician, the statesman and yes the dreamer of a better, more just and sustainable world. President Higgins challenges economic and political orthodoxies and attitudes. He understands the power and essentially contested nature of ideas and draws on a wonderfully rich array of scholarship, especially the continental philosophical tradition and critical social science scholarship, to support his vision.
The speeches are an invitation to open our minds, to reimagine, reconsider, rejuvenate and critically evaluate our common European and global space through ethical dialogue and remembering. Drawing on his lifelong commitment to social democracy, the bedrock of his political identity, the President yearns for a Europe that reconnects the ethical, political, economic, social and ecological, a Europe that is an exemplar to the wider world.
The speeches, although infused with robust challenge and a passionate demand for critical debate, are devoid of cynicism and scepticism. These are the speeches of a humanist who identifies the great challenges we face but believes that though collective deliberation and a shared purpose Europe is up to the task. Rooted though the President is in the world of ideas, the demand for political action is ever present.
Many of the speeches address core issues of European Integration and the future of Europe’s Union. The President shares with Jürgen Habermas and Wolfgang Streeck a deep concern about the consequences of economic liberalisation, deregulation and financialisation in Europe from the 1980s onwards but opts for the Habermassian prescription, a reimagined EU involving deeper and more balanced integration rather than Streeck’s retreat to the nation state. The Ventotene Manifesto already conceived in 1941 on their island prison by Altiero Spinneli and Ernesto Rossi is the kind of holistic and compelling socialist vision of a free and united Europe that inspires the President’s thinking.
The Rome Treaty was not devoid of a social dimension; the 1956 Ohlin report on the social effects of European co-operation led to the inclusion of social provisions. These provisions were built on over subsequent decades to strengthen social Europe but the social dimension remains much weaker than market Europe.
The President aims his fire at the economic orthodoxies of the last 40 years and models of political economy that privilege the market over social and ecological considerations. He points to the weakening of solidarity and social cohesion, rising inequalities and the dangers of uncontrolled capital flows to highlight the need for a paradigm shift and new thinking. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Mariana Mazzucato, Silvia Walby and Ian Gough, the speeches contain the building blocks of a political project that restores the role of public power and rebalances the economic, the social and the ecological both in Europe and globally.
We heard the TINA mantra-there is no alternative-throughout the financial crisis. Paradoxically TINA is an appropriate mantra for our world today. There is no way of addressing the immensity of the climate crisis, the digital transformation and the future of work while maintaining democratic politics and social cohesion without public power and resources.