Higgins’s belief in role of small nations won hearts and minds

Greece Letter: Message Dublin and Athens can reshape European polity well-received

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras shakes hands with President Michael D Higgins in Athens in February. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty

The most pervasive effect of President Michael D Higgins's state visit to Greece last month is that Greeks see another small and peripheral nation reaching out to them not only on economic grounds (due to the shared experience of austerity) but on ethical and social issues.

The President is not a man for platitudes, so his remarks in Athens were not intended as diplomatic niceties but characteristic expressions of his hopes and fears.

His visit has helped to focus attention on both the similarities of the two countries and the differences between them. Having drawn the conventional comparison between the Irish and Greek prehistoric mythologies, he showed that he is not at all blind to the mythologies of modern life.

As a sociologist, Higgins is able to recognise in the Greek system the same clientelism that he has studied at home, and he mentioned this, in the same breath as political corruption. It was timely, since a few days after his visit, two government ministers resigned amid accusations of impropriety, prompting the leader of the opposition to the unusual admission that “Greek society today believes that all politicians are on the take”.

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Before the visit, the Greek minister responsible for European affairs saluted Higgins for both his “solidarity with Greece under austerity” and in pointing to the threats to the “European social model”. The President took up these challenges to the delight of Greek statesmen, politicians, sociologists and journalists. He drew unequivocal attention to what he saw as the EU’s irresponsible attitude to the Greek economic collapse.

‘Public intellectuals’

His remarks on Europe were a wake-up call, demanding a greater response from "public intellectuals".

He was insistent that Ireland and Greece are part of the reshaping of the European polity. He repeatedly stressed the role of the smaller nations in creating "a union of European publics", a "European Union of humanity".

The central point of Higgins’s speeches was the Greek word “empathy”, which could be described as a fanfare for the common man – a reaching-out to people to understand their hopes and needs, especially those of young people, calling for a “union of empathy”. A hallmark of all his speeches in Athens was his emphasis on the ordinary citizen, whose voice is not being heard sufficiently in the corridors of power. “Begin with the citizens,” he said. “Give them the means to participate.”

He was anxious that Greece and Ireland should understand one another more profoundly, referring to columns such as this as reminders “of all that we share with the contemporary Greek nation”. In announcing “great contemporary solidarity” between Ireland and Greece, he spoke of his personal wish to “engage with the future of the Greek people”, dropping a hint that he might pursue this by joining the so-called “Arraiolos” annual convention of non-executive European presidents.

He delighted Greek politicians with his weighty remark that “the future of Europe cannot rest on a limited conversation between the strongest”. When he said “Public language is losing its power to reflect private experience”, he clearly meant not only that governments should speak to governments, but that politicians should re-establish their roots among the electorate, reflecting on what he called “the world of lived experience with all its contemporary challenges”.

‘Collective failure’

Nevertheless, he warned against any complacency, pointing to "the temptation to sleep-walk through the crisis" which has been caused by a "collective failure" and a growing Euroscepticism. Some have interpreted this as a sotto voce word to prime minister Alexis Tsipras not to assume that Europe is going to go away, nor is Greece exonerated from its share of responsibility.

Coming at a time when the Economist Intelligence Unit is strongly predicting the likelihood of a “Grexit”, Higgins’s call for Greeks and Irish to co-operate in rebuilding and reshaping Europe “starting in the European Street” was exhilarating.

His words had a far greater impact, emotionally and intellectually, than speeches in Athens by former American president Barack Obama, French president Emmanuel Macron or Israeli president Reuven Rivlin because, despite the dignity of his office, he speaks persuasively from a background in sociology and culture.

Many will be delighted with the President’s wake-up call, because he advocates “a new literacy”, a new way of thinking about social problems, about globalisation, the profit motive, and the increasing obstacles to social cohesion.

The leading Greek daily, Kathimerini, consistently calls for a "new narrative" to replace the conventional and tired wisdom of Greek politics. Greeks I have spoken to have commented on the fact that Higgins is clearly that rare creature: a politician with a conscience, capable of delivering such a narrative, or at least offering a route towards it.