President criticises credit rating agencies
EU’s achievements cannot be taken for granted, Higgins tells MEPs
President Michael D Higgins addresses journalists during a press briefing at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Reuters
Addressing a packed European Parliament in Strasbourg today, President Higgins said that Europe's citizens are 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.
Noting that 2013 is the year of the citizen, the President highlighted the democratic credentials of the European Parliament, the only directly-elected arm of the European Union. In contrast, he said, European citizens are suffering the consequences of actions and opinions of unaccountable bodies such as credit rating agencies, which are "unaccountable to any demos, and found to be fallible on occasion."
Noting that the European Union draws its legitimacy "from the support of its citizens", the President said that there is a risk that 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 feel that the economic narrative of recent years has been driven by dry technical concerns, rather than by 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."
Throughout his speech, President Higgins referenced the intellectual history of Europe. Warning that Europe was in danger of drifting into "a kind of moral and intellectual impotence," President Higgins urged Europeans to draw on their "shared intellectual heritage" noting that many 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 by the President.
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 present Martin Schulz earlier this morning, and will tour Strasbourg Cathedral this afternoon.