November 2, 2015

President Michael Higgins of Ireland on the State of the (European) Union

A few weeks ago, President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland visited NYU to give the Eleventh Annual Emile Noël Lecture on the State of the (European) Union, sponsored by the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law & Justice at NYU.  Network member Gráinne de Búrca (NYU), Director of the Jean Monnet Center, introduced President Higgins and acted as discussant at the event, which drew a capacity crowd.  We are pleased to share the following summary, prepared by friend of the network Johann Justus Vasel (Visiting Researcher at NYU).

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The European Union – Towards a Discourse of Reconnection, Renewal and Hope

The Eleventh Annual Emile Noël Lecture on the State of the (European) Union

presented by

His Excellency, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins

On Monday September 28, 2015, His Excellency Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, honored the NYU School of Law by delivering the Eleventh Annual Emile Noël Lecture on the State of the (European) Union (full text available here; video available here). The Annual Emile Noël Lecture is sponsored by the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law & Justice. 

Following opening remarks by Dean Trevor Morrison and an introduction by Professor Gráinne de Búrca, His Excellency gave a vivid, bold, and inspiring address entitled “The European Union – Towards a Discourse of Reconnection, Renewal and Hope.” The President took as his subject the current legitimacy crisis facing the European Union. In a rich and powerfully argued presentation, he offered and elaborated the vision that this crisis must be recognized as a consequence and symptom of an inadequate worldview that has taken root among policymakers and politicians: a worldview grounded on assumptions that are grossly inadequate for the tasks facing the Union today. 

The President’s background as a distinguished sociologist and political scientist was clearly in evidence as he reviewed an ideological consensus which had emerged in the 1980s and, since that time, had successfully marginalized critical or competing accounts. He argued that this consensus—beginning with a constrained and artificial conception of the human being as a rational consuming agent driven by self-interested economic motives—is characterized by radical individualism, a narrow vision of liberty as limited to “freedom from regulation and state intervention,” and a reduction in the provision of public goods. Its consequences, moreover, were evident: growing inequality along with a loss of social coherence. Drawing on the work of Jürgen Habermas, Wolfgang Streeck, Claus Offe, and others, the President observed that the rise of global capitalism has not been accompanied by the development of a robust version of global democracy. Citizens, politicians, peoples, and states have become increasingly disconnected from one another, resulting in the profound crisis of legitimacy that grips modern Europe. 

Turning to the future—and to the prospects for a solution—the President indicated that this crisis cannot be met by simply enhancing “transparency” at the European level, or by introducing incremental institutional reforms. Instead, he called for a paradigmatic shift, a completely new way of conceiving domestic and international politics. In his view, a truly radical change will be necessary if the decline in social cohesion and effective democracy is to be halted. Specifically, citizens must be seen, and must perceive themselves, as more than just consumers: as fully realized social, political, and moral agents, and as common participants in a social enterprise. Likewise, the work of the state—including in particular the provision of public goods and the development and enforcement of regulation—must be recognized not as an inherent obstacle to freedom, but as the very material with which freedom can be protected and guaranteed. In this way, the relationship between economic and social policy can be re-forged and a renewed, sustainable political strategy—premised on a richer and more accurate account of political sociology—can be defined. 

To this end, the President urged a return to the core values of the European Union. The Union will only be able to regain its legitimacy and cohesion by recalling and re-affirming its founding principles, by embracing genuine solidarity, and by working to building a socially integrated Europe, not just a single market. In His Excellency’s view, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Social Charter could function as initial building blocks for such a European renaissance, providing a way for social coherence and economic competition to function complementarily rather than in irreconcilable tension. And if the European Union can succeed in this task—in articulating and implementing a genuinely integrative social agenda across physical and political borders—it could provide an extraordinary example and inspiration for the rest of the world. Ultimately, the President’s vision was one of optimism and opportunity: a defining moment in history awaits, and the Union is blessed with the material and intellectual resources required to meet it—if its citizens, its scholars, and its politicians can find the will to do so.

Following the lecture, the President welcomed a range of questions from the (capacity) audience, during which he took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of political involvement by the young, of compliance with states’ international obligations to asylum-seekers and refugees, and of the social and political contributions made by individual citizens outside the formal institutions of government. The clear implicit message: the path out of Europe’s current crisis will be defined by participation, by tolerance, and by solidarity—not simply for Europe’s governments, but for Europe’s citizens as well.

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