Higgins wins Greek hearts with intellectual heft and anti-populism

Greece Letter: Warning against xenophobia, talk of ‘paradigm shift’ finds receptive ears

"You are so lucky to have such an honest president." Greece loves President Michael D Higgins. He impressed Athens during his state visit here last year, and confirmed that impression last month when he participated in both the Athens Democracy Forum (organised by the New York Times) and the "Arraiolos" group of 13 EU heads of state hosted by Greece's president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

Higgins is highly regarded because he speaks with moral authority on ethical, humanitarian and environmental issues. His speeches in Athens (as reported in The Irish Times by Damian Mac Con Uladh) were given special place in the Greek media because editors realise Greece needs this kind of visitor.

Greece's situation in the Balkans often precludes this kind of discussion, because the complexities of day-to-day management of nationalism, populism, border controls and problems of internal cohesion get in the way of constructive thought. With neighbours like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Greece is continually looking over its shoulder and is obliged to replace diplomatic oratory with mere rhetoric.

Amid the presidents of, among others, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Hungary and Poland, Higgins stood out for speaking about topics on which some of the others would prefer to remain silent. The fact he speaks with sincerity and conviction is underpinned by the weight of authority as a politician and a sociologist, a long-standing parliamentarian but also a deeply committed intellectual.

Greece has been bruised more severely than Ireland by the recent economic crisis, while the direct impact of the continuing refugee crisis hardly registers with us. Higgins spoke for many, especially sceptics in a time of Brexit, when, despite being a committed European, he acknowledged that this was “a time of renewal for the EU”. As a sociologist he would see that “social cohesion became a forgotten reference” in the restructuring of the EU.

Paradigm shift

When he urges reliance on "a community of values" he is also aware, as he said a few days later on his state visit to Cyprus, that "these values are not being upheld uniformly and sufficiently". We are faced with "populism and simplistic solutions to complex, multifaceted problems". He very adroitly refers to the need to bring the citizen back into "the European Street, the Agora" – the agora being at the heart of Greek history, culture and all transactions, whether social or mercantile.

The most important argument Higgins advanced – and one that Greece and the rest of the Balkans were slowly coming to realise as a major issue – was that "younger citizens crave a new version of economy". Saluting Greta Thunberg, who had addressed the United Nations on climate change, he said she was "spearheading a new movement, one rooted in a paradigm shift to an ecological-social model".

“Paradigm shift” is a trope of newspaper editorials in Greece – the call for a new way of both thinking and acting. That an Irish president could come here and say it so explicitly must have been music to many ears.

Cyprus's president, Nikos Anastasiades, wasn't at the Arraiolos meeting in Athens, but very successfully hosted the President and his wife, Sabina Higgins a few days later, when again the President made an impact, not least due to his diplomatic references to the issue of painful partition on both islands.

Xenophobia danger

But in the European context he made the larger point that “while we may be at the geographical fringes of Europe, we are both now at the heart of the European discourse”. This is even more true of Cyprus than of Greece. When he spoke with Anastasiades, Higgins cannot have been unaware that he was meeting the leader of the “other” Greek nation. Cyprus’s difficulties in the eastern Mediterranean are also Greece’s problems, with their one neighbour, Turkey, as a common irritant.

While he had sat together in Athens with the Hungarian president, whose country is blatantly anti-migrant, he may have restrained his remarks, but in Cyprus Higgins was able to speak more openly about the danger of xenophobia, of “political ideologies that are based on fear, division and exclusion”. His warning against “fear and ignorance that is invoked and manipulated too often to scapegoat the stranger, ‘The Other’ ” is perhaps the most eloquent description of the dangers that any statesman will voice.

As Ireland negotiates a decade of commemoration, Higgins puts forward “ethical remembering” as a strategy for survival. “Cultivate memory as a tool for the living” is advice that Greece could well take to heart as it, too, approaches the centenary of its war of independence, which started in 1821.

Above all, the President’s meetings in Greece and Cyprus underlined the need for sustained engagement between intellectuals, statesmen and lawmakers in establishing responsible dialogue leading to cohesive thinking on humanitarian and ecological issues.

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