Rediscovering ‘solidarity’ vital to future of Europe – Higgins

EU speech: President sets out distinctly left-wing vision, critical of obsession with markets

Rediscovering the fundamental EU value of "solidarity" will be key to the future of Europe, President Michael D Higgins told a conference in Florence on Thursday.

It is important, he said, “to give the lie to any idea that in its conception the European project was simply and exclusively about capital and markets”.

It was "essential to recognise that the founding treaty of the European Union, while some might wish it were so, was far from being a neoliberal charter. The union, properly interpreted, was not envisaged to consecrate private profit over public purpose. Rather the union was to be a bedrock of profound values and overarching rules," he said.

The president, speaking at the “State of the Union” conference on “Solidarity in Europe” in Florence’s European University Institute, set out a distinctly left-wing vision that was critical of an obsession with markets and what he saw as EU leaders’ sidelining of social cohesion. Implicitly, he was also putting down a marker for the difficult discussions on the next EU budget round which will see cuts in cohesion spending.

The meeting was opened by Italy's President Sergio Mattarella, who spoke of citizens' expectations rising at a time when they were also increasingly sceptical of the EU's ability to solve their problems.

But none of the major problems they faced, he said, could be solved on a national basis – “security and progress of any society must be based on the mutual links of neighbours. That is the essence of solidarity.”

President Higgins praised the November Gothenberg summit’s initiative to bring social policy and a European Social Charter back into the centre of European construction. But he warned that it was not enough to see social policy as an add-on to other policies.

The Gothenberg summit “was an attempt, I would suggest, to reconnect with the European social model which is rooted in our recent history and which recognises that solidarity among citizens and social cohesion are values that must be fostered and maintained – not as mere byproducts of, or compensations for... a successful economy but as foundational elements of economy in their own right”.

Social cohesion was an imperative that was a precondition for a popular willingness to accept other elements of the European project, he argued.

“There are, of course, other priorities on the European agenda – the completion of the single market, including the digital single market, and of the banking union, as well as the next steps towards economic and monetary union. A sufficient basis for the legitimisation of such developments depends on a prior achievement of social cohesion.

A social vision

“These priorities can only deliver their intended benefit to our citizens and such developments must be subordinated to that aim if located within a social vision, if put forward in the right way, can bring great benefits to our citizens.”

In an allusion to the rise of populism and authoritarianism in some member states, the president warned that the EU’s consensus-based decision-making and “calm, respectful and, when we are at our best, rational way of doing business, underpinned crucially by the rule of law, should never be taken for granted... by countries which, even recently, have known dictatorship.

“And,” he said in an implied swipe at the UK, “equally it should not be ignored by large countries which may be tempted by the illusion that in a modern world of globalised trade and finance they can go it alone.”

“Of course, like so many of you, I regret the [Brexit] decision of our nearest neighbour . . .”

In the support of fellow member states for Ireland’s peace process, “there could be no better example of the solidarity which is the theme of this week’s conference”.

“If I may, I will conclude,” he said, “by returning to Michelangelo, who once observed that: ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it’.

“We are in a sense the sculptors of this European generation, still working on a block of valuable marble which has been passed down to us from the founding fathers of the European Union.

“If solidarity remains our guiding principle, I have no doubt that our European future, the outlines of which we can see but much of which remains to be discovered by our own chisels, will be a source pride for ourselves and an object of admiration for others.”