President receives former students of the College of Europe, Bruges

Fri 22nd May, 2015 | 14:30
location: Áras an Uachtaráin

Speech at a Reception for Former Students of the College of Europe

Áras an Uachtaráin, 22nd May 2015

A Dhaoine Uaisle,

Distinguished guests,

Tá áthas orm fáilte a fhearradh romhaibh chuig Áras an Uachtaráin tráthnóna. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Ruth Barrington, as ucht scríobh chugam agus an chuairt seo a mholadh.

You are all very welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin. As President of Ireland, I am delighted to have this occasion to meet with alumni of one of the academic institutions most emblematic of the European project, at one of its most ethically directed moments.

Founded as it was in the wake of the seminal Hague Congress, the College of Europe bears the imprint of the great vision that animated the founding fathers of Europe’s unification, people such as Salvador de Madariaga, Alcide de Gasperi, Denis de Rougemont, Paul-Henri Spaak, Altiero Spinelli, Konrad Adenauer, Hendrik Brugmans and many others.

All those institutions that were founded in the late 1940s and early 1950s – not just the College of Bruges, but also, for example, the European Centre for Culture and the Council of Europe – conjure up the tentative steps of Europe’s moral and cultural reconstruction after the devastation of WWII. The spirit that imbued those founding moments of European integration – that promise of an encounter between pragmatic thinking and moral-ethical reasoning – is a source we, the Europeans of today, should repeatedly go back to, as we seek to meet the great challenges faced by the European Union in this century.

Indeed I believe that ours are times when, again, we acutely need to reach back to the rich scholarship, moral instincts and generous impulses of European thought. Times that require us to rekindle the values of human dignity, solidarity, cohesion and democratic pluralism that underpin the European project. How rarely now do we hear any reference to that rich European philosophical tradition.

All of you here, who attended the College of Bruges in the mid-1970s, belong to a community of people whose experience and intellectual outlook would be profoundly European in scope.

Irrespective of whether or not you then went on to pursue a career in European institutions, or dealing with European issues, I know that your academic training and administrative experience has accustomed you to thinking in terms of the wider European interest, and to upholding the values that the idealistic founders wished to place at the heart of the European project.

I have no doubt, therefore, that you feel as concerned as I am by the great contemporary challenges facing the Europe project today. If I may mention just a few of those challenges:

May I start with what I consider to be the great moral question of our times, that is, the question of how we treat “the other”, “the stranger.” Indeed the arrival on Europe’s shores of thousands of people who are fleeing war and persecution; the movement of workers and families who are escaping destitution and poverty, must be a central concern for all of us who believe in the undamental right of the human person to dignity.

In the Europe of the future, we will be judged with reference to how our policies and practices responded to the plight of those who sought refuge here; and the extent to which the elected governments of the European Union acted in solidarity, cooperation and responsibility as they crafted a common European response.

We will be judged on how we, citizens, treated and made judgements on those who presented themselves at our borders as strangers in difficulty; on how we responded to their stories as they sought our protection; and on the respect our respective states afforded them in their legal and administrative processes.

A second, profound challenge to democracy and social cohesion in Europe arises, as you are well aware, from the new forms of fanaticism and conflict, whose ramifications reach out to the heart of our European cities.

The task of responding to the root causes of such threats is of immense complexity. This is not just because these new forms of violence arise at the obscure intersection of global geopolitical tensions, individual trajectories and beliefs, and complex structures of social inequalities. There are also great risks inherent in the responses that might emerge from fear and anger among our citizens, and, then too, in the obvious potential for political exploitation of these passions, at times of unacceptably high levels of long term unemployment, poverty, and growing inequality.

A third, perhaps less directly confrontational, but no less undermining, threat for the future of European democracy is revealed, I believe, in the largely unquestioned leeching of power and authority to global financial markets assumed to be self-regulating. In many of my previous speeches, I have said how, in my view, the influence of unaccountable bodies such as rating agencies, occupies far too great a space in contemporary media and European public discourse. If citizens turn to Parliaments for accountability and transparency, those parliaments, at both European and national level, must have the capacity to listen, decide and act.

There is, too, I would argue, an urgent need for widespread economic literacy amongst our citizens. Indeed I believe that, just as surely as modern democracy needed literacy to be experienced by all for its promises to be vindicated, today economic literacy, supported by a pluralist scholarship, is essential if we are to move beyond the illusions at play in so many parts of the worlds of production, consumption and finance.

All of us, all of you here whose interest in Europe and concern for its future is very much alive, can, I believe, contribute to rekindling a rich European public discourse – a discourse that accommodates the hopes and aspirations of our citizens, as well as of those who seek refuge here; a discourse that draws on the flux of our diverse European histories, as well as on what our collective memory has made endure, and on that which the European spirit has invested with hope.

May I say, once again, how delighted I am to welcome you here this afternoon. I hope you enjoy this visit to Ireland as much as you did enjoy your study trip forty years ago, when all of you were but students, and Ireland but a very new member state of what was still the European Economic Community.

Bainigí sult as na sólaistí agus as an turas mórthimpeall an tí, agus bígí ar bhur suaimhneas!

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.