President Higgins says EU’s economic policies threaten European unity

Head of State calls for changes to European institutions amid deepening inequalities

President Michael D Higgins has called for changes in the European institutions in a speech in which he also said the "narrow version of an economic union" had left "European unity still reeling".

Returning to criticisms of the European Union frequently heard during his first term, Mr Higgins also criticised it for an economic model which had undermined the social cohesion in Europe and between member states.

Speaking at the opening of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in UCD on Thursday night , Mr Higgins said: "A new mind for Europe is required, which requires a casting aside of failing assumptions within inadequate models. It requires new symmetries between the social, the economic, the cultural and the ethical.

“These symmetries, if they are to be achieved, will require changes in the institutional architecture of the union.


“Yet if the intellectual and political contribution of the union’s members is simply one of reaction and adjustment to a wild unregulated globalisation, the prospects are poor. The space for the new institutional architecture and the role of intellectual work will have to be fought for,” the President said.

Attacks by the President on the EU’s economic policies during the period of austerity, alarmed the then Fine Gael-Labour government though, despite their misgivings, ministers never sought to take on Mr Higgins in public, judging that he was considerably more popular than they were.

EU policy

However, his criticisms, which many saw as stretching the boundaries of his non-party-political role, had little or no impact of the policies of that government. But with Ireland’s role in Europe under intense scrutiny because of Brexit, however, Ministers are unlikely to welcome a fresh broadside against the EU’s economic policy from the Áras.

His speech on Thursday night returned to familiar themes from his first term, though they were if anything framed more directly, and criticised the neglect of the “European street” by elites and by an economic philosophy which he said “found its extreme expression in the assumption that there was no area of life in which the optimum circumstances could not be provided from the market place.

“The concept of the public world was out of fashion and in so many circles could not now be heard. To speak of redistribution was to be regarded as having been stuck in the past,” Mr Higgins said.

‘Lucky’ vs ‘left out’

“Social cohesion is fracturing as inequalities in wealth, power and income are deepening, as labour becomes more precarious and our societies become increasingly divided between what is often lazily described as ‘the lucky’ and the ‘left out’, those on the street and those behind gated communities, between those who can access highly paid employment and those left to struggle on zero-hour contracts,” Mr Higgins warned.

“Within the European Union, cohesion between the member states has also declined,” he said, as the EU has been “divided by a common, one-size-fits-all macroeconomic policy framework which pits creditor against debtor, and those with trade surpluses against those without, those in the north against those in the south.

“It is difficult to see the sharing a union implies in the defence of asymmetrical advantages that flowed from the impatient establishment of monetary union.”

Mr Higgins also suggested that the EU’s rules should be changed. “Can the rules of the internal market yield where they can and surrender when they must to the demands of labour?” he asked.

“How do we resolve what has become an apparent clash between our fundamental values and principles – such as solidarity and a commitment to social justice – and parts of what I have said in the past might be referred to as the ‘economic constitution’ of the union?”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times