McAleese calls for deeper EU engagement


PRESIDENT MARY McAleese has called for a deeper engagement between Europe’s political leaders and its citizens on the EU project, saying all citizens would benefit greatly from improved communication and education about the union.

In a wide-ranging speech in which she emphasised Ireland’s place at the very heart of the European project, Mrs McAleese said the EU would be free to concentrate on the economic situation and other difficulties that come between “citizens and their night’s sleep” once the Lisbon Treaty came into force.

Mrs McAleese was speaking on the second day of her State visit to Luxembourg at Neumünster Abbey, a place of transit for deportees during the Nazi occupation.

She described the European project as a “collective bulwark” against the triumph of darkness to ensure the triumph of light.

She said the EU was a centre of principled gravity, guided by fidelity to human rights, egalitarian democracy, the rule of law and active human solidarity.

Stating that the feeling that people did not fully understand the machinations and internal workings of the EU was common to all members, she told reporters afterwards that the European institutions and governments should use every form of media to facilitate a deepening of the union’s engagement with citizens.

“That is no small demand but it is essential and we pay a price for either doing it badly or not doing it at all,” she said.

Such an effort was necessary, she added, because crash courses and cramming sessions on particular issues were unlikely to properly address the deficit in trust and communications.

“The human right of all European citizens to have a voice in our own affairs was not always respected throughout history.

“It is important that when we vote that it is our voice and not a borrowed voice or a complacent voice that we are using; that it is a well-informed and educated voice which is capable of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff.”

The President said experience of the second Lisbon referendum showed that “with real effort”, there could be a mobilisation of civic society, the political establishment and the media around European issues, adding that other European treaties received as many Yes votes as did Lisbon in the second poll.

“Those who insisted on seeing this episode as a disaster for Europe were far from correct, for the democratic and consensus-based credentials of the union and its sensitivity to the customised needs of each of the sovereign members, its assertion of the value of the voice of its citizens, have all proved their worth, their strength, their integrity and ultimately their unity of purpose.”

She said it would be wrong to interpret the No vote in the first Lisbon referendum as a vote against the union.

The outcome, she said, was mostly an expression of concern about certain elements in the treaty that were of particular worry to Irish people.

“With its knowledge base and expertise, the European Union has a huge reservoir to draw on as we struggle to cope with our national problems and a huge reach in dealing with global issues on our behalf.”

Mrs McAleese was introduced to an invited audience by Jean Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister, whom she thanked for his help in resolving Ireland’s difficulties after the first Lisbon referendum.

“Luxembourg is very attached to Ireland,” Mr Juncker said. “That is why the negative outcome in the first Lisbon referendum came as a particular shock to us.”

Mr Juncker added that the result of the second referendum meant the “love story between Ireland the EU” had started again.

“We are living now in a totally different universe.”

The President said the EU was central to efforts to tackle the economic downturn, job and money worries, the reducing landscape of opportunity, the runaway giddiness of the bank and building sectors and weaknesses in controls which enabled the “toxin of failure” to contaminate global and national markets.

It was crucial also when confronting global warming, climate change and the threats of war and terrorism, she said.

Ireland’s EU membership went hand in hand with the metamorphosis of the country, the expansion of the economy and the recasting of relations with Britain.

Answering a question from the floor after her speech, Mrs McAleese said the argument that the endorsement of the treaty was merely a reaction to the economic situation was a cynical one.

“Do I believe that people changed from a No vote to a Yes because GDP went down? No.”

At a subliminal level, however, she said Europe’s response to the economic crisis drew public attention to its institutions and may have led people to take on a sense of “personal civic responsibility” in their vote.