Speech at a State Dinner in honour of H.E. Mr. Prokopios Pavlopoulos, President of the Hellenic Republic
Áras an Uachtaráin, Thursday, 16 January 2020
Speech by President Michael D. Higgins
State Visit of Greece to Ireland
Áras an Uachtaráin
Thursday, 16th January, 2020
Distinguished Guests, Friends,
A Aíonna Oirirce,
Sabina and I and our invited guests are honoured by your presence here in Áras an Uachtaráin, the home of all Irish Presidents since the Office of Uachtarán na hÉireann was created by our 1937 Constitution.
It is a great pleasure indeed to return the hospitality you showed Sabina and myself while we were in Athens last October when I was given the honour to deliver the third Aristotle Address, and where, too, under your expert chairmanship, President Pavlopoulos, together with another eleven Presidents from around the EU, meeting as the Arraiolos Group, we had an opportunity to discuss those pressing matters that concern all of the people of the European Union and beyond.
Of course Sabina and I and those travelling with me retain fresh in our minds our most wonderful State Visit to Greece in 2018. It was such a memorable occasion for us.
As I reflect on the Aristotle Address, I greatly appreciate the special privilege it was to address you and others in the unique and historic setting of the Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora. Reflecting on our visit to the Agora, I was deeply struck by its significance in the history of ancient Athens, and for democracy itself, as a gathering place for discourse and ideas.
Delivering the Aristotle Address at that site was, for me, a moving experience, aware as I am of the debt we all owe, through the generations, to that founding exchange of ideas, that pursuit of truth and beauty in its wholeness of mind and body, that was and is the Greek contribution, and how we must be grateful too to those from other cultures and beliefs including those Islamic scholars who would later translate and protect that Greek thought for us throughout the ages, thus leaving it as legacy for us even after their own expulsion from their location in Europe, a legacy of translation of thought that thus survived to transcend oceans and borders.
However, it is important to stress that neither contemporary Ireland nor contemporary Greece have fallen from any previous Golden Age. Having the foundation myths as legacy must not ever become a source for a false contest between comparisons of what is ancient and what is contemporary.
It would be an enormous omission for me not to refer to the great legacy of Greece on the arts in Ireland. So many Irish playwrights – from John Millington Synge, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and on to Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy and Marina Carr who are with us this evening, so many in the modern period – as well as the major poets including Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Tom Paulin, and Michael Longley, have all published work based on the Athenian tragedies. The critical scholarship is there too in such work as that of Professor Brian Arkins, Professor Fran O’Rourke and Professor John Dillon.
Greece is a country and a people that has given, and continues to give, I emphasise, so much to Europe, indeed to the world, by way of its contribution to civilisation, both ancient and contemporary, in culture, aesthetics and philosophy, including, as I have mentioned, some of the most important founding discourses on democracy itself. In acknowledging that ancient contribution, I hasten to say it is also a heritage foundation stone of the house contemporary Greek and Irish people wish to make of our European Union, one that can be energised by possibility as much as history.
I hope, therefore, President Pavlopoulos, that this return State Visit of Greece to Ireland will prove to be for you and those travelling with you a memorable and enjoyable one.
Our connection, of course, is not simply one of the sharing of rich symbolic works of thought and myth.
The long and profound connections between our countries should enable us in the contemporary period and in the decades to come to work together in the crafting of a Union of European publics that will have the capability to recognise, value and celebrate Europe in all its diversity and possibilities – a European Union that we might offer not only as a regional achievement but, because of its potential for far-seeing humanity, a global, inter-generational exemplar.
The very term ‘Union’ challenges, as it is a term that is meaningless if it does not acknowledge an equality of voice in common decision-making, in the sharing of prospects, welfare and challenges. The term ‘Union’ challenges all of the dichotomous notions of strong and weak north or Mediterranean economies. To give the ‘Union’ meaning requires a generous sharing of capacity for transcendence beyond interests contained by borders.
The election of new Presidents of the European Commission and European Parliament allows us to reflect on the future of Europe and what kind of Europe we wish to inhabit and craft for future generations.
I suggest that our European Union must be built on the fruits of innovating co-operating states, on the preservation and production of pluralist interdisciplinary intellectual work, work that is shared by citizens who have the courage to make an interrogation of how life is to be lived, and how we should seek to be in the world, ideas being explored in the margins of contemporary European scholarship and so eloquently expressed by scholars such as Professor Hartmut Rosa of Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena in his book Resonance.
Ideas and words matter, and the European Union has not drawn, as it should, on its culture and intellectual resources as it could have.
A “catastrophe of resonance”, to borrow Rosa’s terminology, has been experienced in modern times. It is, he argues, related to a growing narcissism, an aggressive individualism and is fuelled by an emphasis on insatiable consumption and wealth accumulation.
There is an alternative ideal for living expressed in some important and brave work against the tide that has now become our path for survival, one that is based on human need being chosen over greed, respecting ecology and the need to preserve our fragile planet. It has been presented in the life and work of scholars such as Professor Ian Gough whose book, Heat, Greed and Human Need, so powerfully addresses our interacting crises of ecology, economic inequality and human greed.
Within a reflective European Union, Greece and Ireland can co-operate, indeed give a lead, as a source of ideas for how we are to live, to be too defending oases of the critical tradition in thought.
There is so much that we share. Our peoples have had to struggle for their independence. Both Greece and Ireland will mark important anniversaries, of 1821 and 1921, on our respective paths to independence, and I am sure that over the coming period we will find ways of reflecting on that shared history, preserving the inventive, humanistic values in our peoples and our cultures to give an ethical, inclusive dimension to life, memory with a truthful respect for its complexity and the edifices on which our shared future might be based.
From both of our struggles for independence, there are themes to be recovered, there are versions of nationalism that, while they delivered and defended freedom, fall short, in that freedom that comes from an equality of participation, socially, economically and in gender terms. For both the Irish and Greek stories are rich, containing as they do, moments of emancipation, some gained, some squandered, as well as periods of suffering, experiences that equip us well for the challenge of envisioning and constructing a European Union of humanity, shaped to meet the needs of all our citizens.
In order for this to become a reality, we must become ever closer, assess our vulnerabilities, our different resources, be willing to share, become better listeners in our discourse-sharing.
Our hopes, our shared challenges require a full engagement of mind, will and action. It is through a recognition of the curative and life-enhancing power of culture, too, I suggest, that we recall once more the resolute courage that is needed to be different, to take a stand, to prevail. Social Europe, for example, means putting the monetary, the fiscal, in their place as tools, not as determinants of the life of the European peoples.
We must endeavour to achieve a deepening of deliberative democracy, address the growing alienation from the EU felt by so many of our citizens, it is measures of inclusion that offer an alternative to political extremism and populism, provide the European institutions with a necessary, if now made fragile, legitimacy.
It is by fostering deeper political economic literacy among our peoples that we may bring about the necessary ecological-social paradigm shift which I suggest is urgently required, not just as a gesture towards inter-generational solidarity, but as a means of avoiding our legacy to the next generation being that of a hostile, conflict-torn and volatile Planet Earth.
The European publics have paid a severe price by being made ‘mute’ in the false suggestion that economic policy-making is beyond a general comprehension by citizens, that only one set of economic assumptions, neither transparent nor economically verifiable, should prevail for all.
The financial crisis of 2008-9, the ensuing economic recession, and the reaction to it impacted severely on both our countries, as we are only too well-aware.
The credibility of the intellectual tool and discipline that is political economy is severely damaged by the enforced exile of philosophy from the discourse of political economy.
The crisis established the phenomenon of what has been legitimised as punitive economics, in which austerity became a single hegemonic policy mantra, indeed not to be questioned, an instrument that was often enforced mercilessly as a means of protecting and maintaining the failing economic status quo, sourced as it was in the neoliberal paradigm which we in Europe have endured for some four decades now.
The crisis also resulted in the forced privatisation of Greek and Irish infrastructure and assets imposed by international lenders as a condition for financial assistance.
However, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. In recent years we now have in the discourse orthodox international institutions, including the OECD and World Bank, issuing statements that amount to a volte-face on austerity, claiming that they have now come to realise that it can be self-defeating and counter-productive.
It is now clear to even some of those from a fervent neoliberal perspective that austerity has had damaging, indeed catastrophic, impacts on the societies on whom it was imposed a decade ago, leading to yawning inequality, a haemorrhaging of solidarity, and political extremism.
This admission, however, becomes an exercise in bad faith if what is on offer, be it from the new Commission or the European Central Bank, is to be the same ordering of priorities – what is monetary and fiscal, taking precedence over what is social and cohesive.
The OECD recognises that a new growth narrative is now required, one that places the wellbeing of people at the centre of its efforts. Its recently established advisory group, ‘Beyond Growth: Towards a New Economic Approach’, contains progressive thinkers such as Mariana Mazzucato, and I am hopeful that its recommendations, published last October, if implemented widely, would assist in making economics itself, as a discipline of intellectual rigour and transparency, fit for purpose so that it might address, as it did in previous crises, our contemporary challenges.
Our conception of economic progress, therefore, needs to contain a responsible response to climate change, sustainability and an inequality that in its deepening is threatening democracy. Economic stability must extend beyond any non-transparent individualised form of material prosperity to include indicators of social wellbeing, cohesion and empowerment, and with a deep and urgent understanding of the ecological constraints we face.
We must all work together to ensure that the recommendations of this Group’s report will be given reality through Member States’ policies. It must be brought to the town halls and the villages, rather than be the mumbled confusion within an iron case of administrative inability to change.
We in the European Union have the intellectual resources, the courage and the compassion necessary to create an emancipatory sustainable development model, not only for our own peoples but for other regions in our neighbourhood.
Despite its mixed historical experience, including the numerous historic achievements of our continent, many centuries of which were tarnished by war and suffering, the European Union today still retains a capacity from its legacy of thought, including and importantly from its Greek contribution on the rational, from its historic commitment to intellectual discourse, that led to the undoing of the trammels of empire and that informed the struggle against imperialism.
Fundamental morality requires that we recognise the courage and selflessness of those who fought and struggled for freedom and independence. We must never forget the human loss that was suffered in opposing and defeating Fascism, including the heavy price paid in Greece by its people who were exemplary in their farms, villages, towns and cities, a contribution too easily forgotten.
We in our time have been given a unique opportunity, and indeed responsibility, to assert, deepen and, where necessary, reassert those founding values of democracy, cohesion, shared prospects, human rights and the rule of law in an increasingly interdependent world in which those values are challenged. Let us do it together.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. Celebrating that long relationship and a deepening friendship assisted by this visit and recent visits, may I now invite you all, distinguished guests, to stand and join me in a toast to:
To the good health of President Pavlopoulos and his family;
To the peace and prosperity of the people of Greece;
And to the enduring affinity and bonds of friendship between our two peoples.
Stin ygeiá sas!
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.