Europe more than `an economic space’, President tells European Parliament

President Michael D Higgins looks to shared intellectual past in speech to parliament

Europe needs to reassert the "idealism, intellectual strength and moral courage" that drove the founding fathers of the union, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Addressing a packed European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, the President said that Europe's citizens were threatened with an "unconscious drift" to disharmony, a loss of social cohesion and a deficit of democratic accountability. "The inspiration and the achievements of the founders of the European Union cannot be taken for granted," he said.

Year of citizen
Noting that 2013 was the year of the citizen, the President highlighted the democratic credentials of the European Parliament, the only directly elected arm of the EU. In contrast, he said, European citizens were suffering from the actions of bodies like credit rating agencies, which were "unaccountable to any demos, and found to be fallible on occasion".

Noting that the EU draws its legitimacy “from the support of its citizens”, the President said there was a risk the economic crisis will lead to a crisis of legitimacy for the union.


“Many of our citizens regard the response to the crisis as disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity,” he said, adding that citizens felt the economic narrative of recent years had been driven by dry technical concerns rather than sufficient compassion and empathy.

Unemployment was highlighted as a key concern by the President, who noted that the Irish presidency had put job creation at the top of the agenda.

“We cannot allow this [unemployment] to continue,” he said. “There is nothing more corrosive to society and more crushing to an individual than endemic unemployment, particularly among the young.”

Intellectual history
Mr Higgins referenced the intellectual history of Europe. Warning that Europe was in danger of "a kind of moral and intellectual impotence", he urged Europeans to draw on their "shared intellectual heritage", noting that thinkers such as Diderot, Kant and Herder were forces of dissent and radicalism.

"We are the inheritors of a profoundly important set of European values – Greek democracy, Roman law, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the great democratic revolution that began in France, " he said. "Europe is therefore more than an economic space of contestation in which our citizens are invited or required to deliver up their lives in the service of an abstract model of economy and society whose core assumptions they may not question or put to democratic test in elections."

Ireland’s connections with Europe throughout history were also highlighted.

Ireland has been European "in consciousness and commitment", he said, "be it in our ancient Celtic connections, in our continuous connection with European scholarship, or in our modern consistent support for European unity".

The President held a private meeting with European Parliament president Martin Schulz earlier yesterday morning, and toured Strasbourg cathedral in the afternoon.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent