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“Creating a New Moment for the European Union:  Problems and Prospects”  Address to the Irish Association of Contemporary European Studies

Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 18th April 2016

A Aíonna Oirirce,

A Chairde Gael,

Is mór an pléisiúir agus an onóir dom é gur iarradh orm an chéad Léacht Bhliaintúil ag Cumann na hÉireann um Léann Eorpach na Linne a thabhairt.

[I am delighted and honoured to have been asked to deliver this first Annual Lecture of the Irish Association of Contemporary European Studies.]

Europe – and more precisely the European project – has arrived, yet again some might say, at a moment of deep uncertainty. Indeed I am aware that your Association reflected on this very question at your annual conference last November, and I believe the collective insights of the IACES are more necessary than ever at this critical juncture in the history of the European project.

Before coming to consider the “prospects and problems” of today’s European Union, a Union which is a monument to cooperation between peoples, but which currently faces many threats both internal and external, I want to begin by reflecting for a moment on the inspiration and motivations that brought this Union into existence, and indeed the literary response to the initiative that was being taken.

The founders of the European Communities, emerging from a time of darkness and destruction, were men and women who discerned the opportunity for future generations of Europeans to experience a continent of peace, healing, cultural innovation, and such freedom from fear as would enable a movement between, beyond, and back again through the lands, towns, cities, rivers, lakes and mountains of Europe; spaces and places on which the brand of war, empire domination and loss had been placed. 

Theirs was a powerful invocation of moral urgency in both of the title words of this European Community – “Europe”, a space beyond borders, an inviting ideal beyond any distortion or abuse of history; and “Community”, a relationship beyond aggression, a sharing of prospects for the future, a future of shared security and prosperity.

The idea of European unification was then, and remains now, no idle yearning for any unattainable idealist utopia. When reflecting on that hopeful era as a source of inspiration to our contemporary moment, we should never forget how, in responding to the devastation of the recent war, Europe’s founders were able to draw from a well of intellectual, philosophical and moral traditions.

The new conceptual and administrative models they brought forward were not, of course, ever envisaged to be static, but they were based on core values, values that were sourced in those rich European traditions of thought; differing as they did in how they interpreted modernity, the prospects for democratic change, the benign promise of rationalisation, and the danger of a malign transition to irrationality.

In the intervening years, there have been many great and tangible achievements of the Community, and later the Union. There have been many moments when the pragma of reconstruction showed glistening specks of promise, when the rich potential of the dream of European unification became manifest. The welcoming of new members, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the widening of horizons offered by programmes such as Erasmus are examples of this.  

Such accomplishments have appealed, not only to the young of Europe, but to their elders too, who had recovered hope and who were heartened by the delivery of a shared vision for new generations enabled to move between languages and cultures. Your own work in promoting the subject of European Studies and its related fields in our universities has, of course, also been central to advancing this vision of a common Union.

The vision remains relevant, yet it appears to be becoming more faint, more distant. If I may allow myself a metaphor - the current position of the European Union calls to mind for me the myth of Oisín fallen to earth. It seems, at times, that all we are doing is invoking the mythic moments of the founders – that emancipatory discourse, their heightened prose which envisaged the shape of a continent free of war; different peoples, all European Union members, rejoicing in peace; sharing prosperity and offering security. There is an unavoidable sense that our faith in the actuality of these aspirations is rapidly turning to dust.

In our nostalgia for that time, we may however overlook the fact that the founders’ enthusiasm for consensus, the new models and structures of cooperation they designed, did not adequately address the concept of power – specifically economic power – and thus they did not eliminate some of the issues posed by the power of economic interests: questions of the location of such power, its changing forms, and how it would manifest itself in a context of an administrative atrophy that would become ever more opaque and open a gap between decision-making processes and citizens’ hopes.

The power of those economic interests has now been taken on to a new plane. While elements of the global power structure were redefined and reshaped, it remained open for new confrontations that would be soaked in new technological form, would absorb applications of science, and would eventually lead to a new version of utilitarianism, narrow in form and privileging individualistic achievement rather than social cohesion. 

Social cohesion is still strong in the rhetoric at the time of the Lisbon Treaty, but thereafter a change of political context fairly rapidly leads to a loss of the position it had enjoyed alongside competitiveness in the Union’s key texts.

As to where we are now, it is a truism to state that there is unhappiness on the European Street. To analyse the forms and sources of that unhappiness should be one of the aims of our scholarship. Instead, an atmosphere of intellectual entrapment often prevails. It is as if a net had been thrown over the emancipatory thought that created the European promise. 

So much of our discourse on Europe is at best descriptive and so often shallow. Re-energising the movement for a shared Europe requires, then, I will argue, the breaking of those snares and traces, some old and some new, which are blocking us from the grounded theory we need. We have been confined to haphazard use of what is instrumental, rather than the strong theoretical and empirical work.

This afternoon, I wish to offer a few thoughts on the nature and texture of what might be described as our current European paralysis, but also to put forward for your consideration the hopeful suggestion that the great challenges we face might also present a generational opportunity to rekindle the European vision for this and for future generations. There is difficult work to be done, but I believe that we can and must succeed.

The difficulty of our present condition is not lost on our European leaders. In his first press conference this year, the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, told us that the European Union faces “multiple crises, and ones that are unchecked.” Striking an unusually pessimistic tone, President Juncker acknowledged that there was a serious risk that 2016 might see the “beginning of the end” for the European project, before he concluded by saying:

“My generation is no generation of giants. We are a generation of weak heirs who forget quickly.”


The scale and complexity of the “poly-crises” facing us as Europeans are, undeniably, daunting. Most immediately, the European Union is confronted with the urgent needs of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees who are fleeing to its territory; but this is a development coming to the forefront at a moment of enduring economic and financial difficulties, of which youth unemployment is, perhaps, the most devastating symptom.

The Union is also suffering from a security crisis that has reached a new peak after the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels; and from a lingering political and legitimacy crisis that is now aggravated by an upsurge of xenophobic populism throughout Europe, as well as political strategies that put at risk genuine democratic pluralism in several member states.

The combined effects of such difficulties are deeply corrosive of our citizens’ confidence in both their national and European institutions. Alarmingly, those various crises only fuel and amplify one another. We can see, for example, how contemporary populist discourse in Europe is feeding off multiple sources, including the deep anxiety generated by the threat of terrorism, and a reluctance on the part of entire swathes of Europe’s citizenry to welcome newcomers to their midst.

Thus I would suggest that the current crisis of democracy in Europe, and the associated upsurge of what we commonly call “populism” – i.e. the emergence of strong-spoken political leaders who call for what they assert is a return to “law and order” and to cultural homogeneity behind the shelter of revived national borders – that this “populist moment” does not just reflect a fearful response to the challenge of cultural diversity.  It also constitutes, I believe, a political backlash to the instability that has resulted from years of economic and financial deregulation at national, European and global level, and to what is perceived on the European Street as an exclusion from debate, discourse, decision-making, and instrumental administration.

These are issues I have sought to address in my speeches to the European Parliament in May 2013, to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January 2015, and more recently in the Emile Noël lecture I gave to New York University’s Law School. I have had quite a correspondence following those public occasions, which has been very encouraging.

There is, in contemporary European debate, a strong and growing appetite for a broader and more critical discourse, and for new theories and new models. At the same time, there is also a vigorous anti-intellectual current which is as insidious as the most extreme forms of populism in its attempts at marginalising the role of pluralist scholarship in political discussions about our future. These tensions between those who would like to stimulate intellectual discourse and those who would seek to limit it run deep.

In some regards, our contemporary condition resonates with the insights offered by Hungarian social scientist Karl Polanyi in his seminal book from 1944, The Great Transformation. In that book Karl Polanyi interpreted the emergence of European fascism, in the 1930s, as a perverted and opportunistic twisting of the social impulse to control the chaos of the self-regulating markets of the era rather than be controlled by them. Commenting on the misguided attempts at restoring the gold standard in the wake the First World War, Polanyi wrote:

“the stubbornness with which economic liberals, for a critical decade, had, in the service of deflationary policies, supported authoritarian interventionism, merely resulted in a decisive weakening of the democratic forces which might otherwise have averted the fascist catastrophe.”


Although the current economic and financial predicament of European states substantially differs from that of the interwar period, the lessons of Polanyi should not be lost for our generation.

Distinguishing between populist manipulations and the stirring up of fears on the one hand, and genuine empowerment of the citizenry through the democratic appropriation of debates on economic issues on the other, it is essential, I believe, to affirm forcefully that democracy is made fragile, most often unintentionally, whenever decisions that are the legitimate object of political debate are abandoned to the automaticity of rigid fiscal rules.  This is especially so when the source of those rules is in theory whose assumptions are not transparent, and which has not been scrutinised as part of a pluralist set of options with differing implications for different sections of society.

That automaticity of fiscal rules is based on the assumption that there is but one path to economic soundness. It impoverishes economic theory by its narrow theoretical premises, and in its policy adaptations it denies processional amendment. Indeed it is irrational to elevate what should be only one possible approach among a variety of others to the level of an hegemonic theoretical model. The weaknesses in our economic thinking and the difficulties in challenging these weaknesses are not unrelated, then, to our present political predicament.

The political tragedy of the 1930s described by Polanyi and others was very much alive in the memory of the fathers of Europe, when they undertook their work of unification and cooperation. It was also central to the thinking of those who lay the foundations of Europe’s welfare states in the 1950s, in a tremendous effort of social and moral reconstruction.

Wolfgang Streeck has suggested that the tensions inherent to “democratic capitalism” such as it was established in the aftermath of World War II – tensions between popular ideas of social justice on the one hand, and the demands of market on the other – have migrated from one institutional location to the next over the four decades since the end of post-war growth. This, according to Streeck, led national governments to resort successively to various expedients in their effort to accommodate the conflicting claims of citizens and markets: from the use of inflation as an instrument in the 1970s, to the resort to public spending and public debt in the subsequent years, and then, under pressure from special institutional interests, to financial deregulation and the unleashing of private credit, until a recoil from the great financial collapse of 2008 prompted a return to fiscal austerity.

As Streeck puts it, the clash between the contradictory principles of allocation under democratic capitalism is now to be found:

“in international capital markets and the complex contests currently taking place between financial institutions and electorates, governments, states, and international organisations… The contradictions of democratic capitalism have finally become internationalised, playing themselves out not just within states but also between them, in combinations and permutations as yet unexplored.”

The risk, for both the economy and for democracy, is immense. And the fact that, since the end of the 1980s, discourse and debate about the role of the State has dwindled, being largely replaced by technical analysis of administration, has only eroded further democratic legitimacy. National governments and European institutions alike are perceived by many citizens, not as protecting and mitigating agents, but, increasingly, as levers in the hands of ever more mobile and speculative, and less productive and less accountable, international financial markets – markets which seek to impose the insatiable requirements of their profit expectations onto populations.

There are no simple solutions to this complex, and largely unchartered, state of affairs. The pessimism of Streeck, Juncker, and so many others, is challenging. Theirs is an analysis which must be considered. Yet, we should not allow even the best informed pessimism to petrify our will to act and think daringly. And while description of complexity is often preferred in contemporary scholarship as a safe option, what is required is no less than a paradigm shift, a theoretical leap in our scholarship.

Invoking the Founders can at most be a beginning. We need to envision new approaches that will be sufficient for the challenges that are now global, and for which an advanced regional contribution would be so helpful.

I would suggest, then, that we must at least approach the current crisis, not with fear and fatalism, but with courage and hope, and in a spirit of creativity and solidarity. “Solidarity” is a concept, invoked across transcendental systems and capable of binding thought and action on issues of social cohesion, sustainable development, and generating an adequate response to climate change. I strongly believe that to provide hope – to recover a positive vision at this crucial moment – we must breathe new life into the enabling and inspiring principle of solidarity: solidarity within the Union and solidarity in the wider world. 

Solidarity is a concept that can secure, once again, popular citizen support within Europe, and particularly so among the young. It is an organising principle that has political, social, economic and cultural applications for both scholars and   policy-makers. We must accept, too, that those who believe in the rule of the most powerful will oppose, obstruct, and mobilise cynicism to destabilise any movement towards such solidarity.

The second dimension, solidarity with the outside world, a new momentum for an outward-looking Europe, is in my view also crucial at this particular historical juncture. The sense of purpose at the heart of the European project cannot be frozen in time. Today, it is not between France and Germany, or between Germany and Poland, that the promise of peace is to be achieved, but in the wider world. The European Union cannot afford to remain inward-looking at this turn of the 21st century, when everything – from climate change to telecommunications, from sustainable development to migrations – points to the utter interdependence of all societies across the globe.

The key question, as I see it, is therefore the following: how to achieve solidarity and social cohesion in a global context? Can we, as Europeans, offer new paradigms of thought and policy? Are we fully drawing on our inherited and contemporary intellectual capacity? Can we rise to the challenge of responding in an adequate manner to such pressing global concerns as climate change, unresolved issues of global poverty and food insecurity, unsustainable levels of debt, abuses of military power, and unprecedented levels of forced displacement throughout our world?

Our ability to fully seize upon such matters will determine, I believe, the future of the European project – whether it will flourish or perish. I also believe that if we rise to the challenge of crafting a new discourse for the European Union, one that is grounded in a recognition of our commitments in relation to contemporary global challenges, we will recover the sense of collective purpose that is so blatantly lacking at present. We will be able to create, as the title of my address today suggests, a new moment for Europe, in this new century.

The new moment, even if it is built on a better analysis, will still have the challenges of being advanced - and communicated - with patience and courage. No challenge more clearly illustrates the need for such a shift in vision and discourse than the so-called “migrant and refugee crisis” currently facing the Union. Indeed this crisis throws light on the various dimensions of an adequate European response to any of the great challenges of our times: it illustrates the need for solidarity between member states, but also the need to build up solidarity and social cohesion within each state, as well as the necessity for the European Union as a whole to face up to its geopolitical responsibilities.

If I may start with the first element, the need for solidarity between the European Union’s member states, it is important to acknowledge, at the outset, the scale of the challenge presented to them by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing a horrendous war in Syria, but also of boat after boat of destitute men, women and children seeking shelter from other conflicts, natural disasters or extreme poverty in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Why did the member states of one of the globe’s richest and most powerful entities, a Union of 508 million citizens, feel so threatened by the arrival of a 1.5 million refugees and migrants last year? This, I contend, is revelatory of a certain perception of ourselves as Europeans, one that is predicated on fear. It reflects a sense of helplessness, which of course is far from irreversible, should our elected representatives, our public intellectuals, our media, show constructive leadership and craft a discourse of confident hope for Europe.

Instead, in their coverage of the “refugee crisis”, European media have tended to conflate the image of Europe with that of the small Greek island of Lesbos; they have presented to us a vision of Europe as a frail isolated rock overwhelmed by a tsunami of uprooted people.

When one considers the prosperity and the rich diversity of so much of Europe, where so many people from all regions of the globe have settled peacefully and successfully over so many decades, confidence, not apprehension, should guide our response to the arrival of new migrants.

Yet, whereas one might have expected, in the face of the new challenge, a reviving of the old European adage – “strength through unity” – what we have witnessed instead is a ruinously and narrowly self-interested response on the part of many member states. There were, and it is important to acknowledge them, several remarkable exceptions to such approach; but the rejection of the European Commission’s proposal for a binding quota system has left the “frontline states” of Greece, Italy and Malta to rely largely on their own, limited, resources in responding to the urgent needs of so many migrants and refugees.

This calamitous situation does not just jeopardise the future of Schengen and the principle of free circulation within the EU; it is also indicative of a severe breakdown of trust amongst the EU member states. Most alarmingly, it has the potential to undermine the values and principles at the basis of that humanistic spirit to which Europeans recommitted themselves after the devastation of World War II.

Can we leave millions of mothers and fathers, teenagers, children and babies, to wait in uncertainty, hopeless poverty and squalor at the border of Europe? Can we avert our gaze from the even larger numbers of those who are trapped in precarious camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan? Is our response to be defined by barbed wire, tear gas and rubber bullets?

We might, at this crucial juncture, recall the words of Hannah Arendt in her essay, “We Refugees”, written in the midst of World War II, when Jewish refugees from Poland, Germany, Austria, Romania, and elsewhere had found themselves trapped, in an utter state of vulnerability, in the middle of Europe:

“Refugees driven  from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples … The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest members to be excluded and persecuted.”

Unfortunately, the element of fear, exacerbated by the threat of terrorism, has only increased our European leaders’ urge to find ways, to curb the influx of refugees at all costs, so as to reassure public opinions who tend to view through the same anxious lens “security crisis” and “refugee crisis”. Many commentators have rightly noted that such hasty responses, sometimes achieved in disregard of usual European rules and procedures present serious risks for the rule of law and the principle of human dignity as cornerstones of the European project.

The agreement struck last month by Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and EU leaders is an important effort at countering the exploitation of migrants by ruthless smugglers. However, we must ask ourselves, does this agreement provide a lasting solution to the crisis? Will refugees not seek alternative routes for coming to Europe? And, most importantly, can such an agreement fully and effectively respect the human rights obligations which provide the foundation for the European legal order?

These are essential questions which remain to be adequately answered. I strongly believe that we should be wary of bending European and international human rights legislation to breaking point. The contravention of core principles might be politically convenient in the short term, but such breaches would only jeopardise the survival of our European Union in the long term. Moreover, if we fail to uphold the values of human dignity and respect in our response to the plight of refugees, how could we expect to be taken seriously when we ask, quite rightly, that the newcomers also respect such fundamental European values as freedom of speech, freedom of expression and gender equality? How can we speak with authority, given such departures from what we previously acknowledged and proclaimed were universal principles?

These are the questions that were posed to us this week also by Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew during their visit to Lesbos – the moral questions which are inescapable for all Europeans at this time.

They are questions, too, which are given a further poignant urgency by the reports emerging today of further tragic losses of life in the Mediterranean.

To give protection, food and shelter to those who are fleeing war, oppression or starvation is a matter of fundamental, universal human solidarity. It is also a matter of legal responsibility. EU member states, through their being party to the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 on the Status of Refugees, have a duty to do their fair share to resettle people in need of international protection. There can be no cap on this fundamental responsibility, no limit set on the number of those eligible to request asylum.

The right of asylum – the notion that a person persecuted in their own country may be protected by another sovereign authority – is, as you all know, an ancient juridical concept, and one that is a corner stone of the European legal order. Some of our most prominent European thinkers have been refugees: René Descartes, for example, who was persecuted in France by Voetius and his followers, sought refuge in the United Provinces [the Netherlands], while in the same years, French King Louis the XIII refused to extradite Dutch citizen Hugo Grotius, one of the founders of international law – the same man who wrote of asylum that it existed for those “who suffer from undeserved enmity”.

Rather than responding with regression to short-term interests, we Europeans can with so much benefit draw on our rich intellectual and philosophical tradition as we seek, in our time, to find a just compass by which to define our relation to the other, the stranger of today, the fellow-citizen of tomorrow.

In 20 years from now there will be Syrian men and women who will remember what happened to them in Europe as children, how they were kept waiting in the icy Balkan winter before being sent back to the other shore of the Mediterranean, or, on the contrary, how they were offered hospitality in a new country, and how they were able to rebuild their lives free of fear and embrace the opportunities to contribute to a new Europe of prosperity and tolerance.

As I wrote these words, I thought too, of my speeches in recent years in Boston, Chicago, New York where I spoke of the post-Famine Irish migrants arriving in the ports of Canada and the United States.

For us to have a positive, practical and human response to the current situation, for Europe to accommodate the dreams and hopes of so many families currently on the road, it is imperative, I believe, that we also focus on building up social cohesion within our states. All of us Europeans should make it our priority to build thriving, inclusive societies, not just for our citizens, but also for all those residents of the European Union who were born elsewhere. This involves, of course, adjusting our labour markets and crafting bold and ambitious policies in such fields as education and schooling, language training, housing, as well as political participation.

As Peter Sutherland, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for International Migration, said in his Littleton Memorial Lecture, last December:

“The greatest challenge we face over the next generation is also our oldest one: How to live well together ... To put this another way, at the heart of our response to the influx       of refugees, both here in Ireland and across Europe, must be the idea of reinventing the “we” in our societies.”

Europe must remain committed to a future that recognises diversity as a value to be cherished, not a threat. As a widening of our horizons and possibilities. Indeed, it would be tragic to let the fears associated with the very real terrorist menace that overhangs so many of our cities destroy the overwhelmingly positive achievement that the building of culturally diverse societies throughout Western Europe represents.

I profoundly believe that there is no going back to cultural isolation and homogeneity, lest our ambition is to transform the European Union into some kind of giant private community. But this too would be a delusion. No Great Wall, no fences, have ever stopped great migration waves or great natural upheavals. And were the political drive in Europe ever to lead us, once again, down the road of cultural purity, that would be at a huge cost – the cost of democracy itself.

Let us, then, seize this critical moment in the history of the European Union to recapture “the Delors moment” and restore the objective of social cohesion to the centre of the European project. Let us, also, acknowledge that not all member States share the same history nor the same approach to cultural and religious diversity, but that a dialogue is possible – is necessary – between us. Let us, in other words, do everything within our reach to make Europe a place of cohesion and hope.

This is a task to which all of us can contribute: our political leaders and our public intellectuals, our academics, like yourselves, as well as those numerous concerned citizens and volunteers who have already displayed such generosity in providing desperately needed care, be it in the camps of Lampedusa, Idomeni, Tempelhof, or Calais. Indeed to invoke the spirit of the founding fathers of Europe – those “giants” mentioned by President Juncker – is not to brandish a stick with which to castigate our current pettiness.

The founders of European integration were simply men and women who dedicated their intellect, their moral courage and their efforts to responding to the circumstances of their time. We are just as capable to respond to the great challenges of our own times, making the best of the political instruments of cooperation and solidarity they have bequeathed to us.

For this to be fully achieved, though, there is an urgent need, as I view it, for the European Union to assert the best delivery of its founding values, its best version of itself, and to face up resolutely to its geopolitical responsibilities.

Indeed if terrorism on the one hand, and mass migration on the other, are partly the manifestations, within our societies, of unresolved conflicts outside of Europe, then the European Union as a whole is the victim of its own strategic abstention for the last 25 years.

Today we are witnessing worrying escalation of tensions, once again, in the Great Lakes region and in particular in Burundi, not to mention Ukraine, Nigeria, South Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so many other places where peace is fragile. If not addressed, these dramatic situations of conflict will continue to generate unspeakable human suffering, and they might also put at naught ongoing and positive global efforts at combating climate change, poverty and hunger.

Of course I am aware that those are challenges of huge intricacy, and I do not minimise them, but I suggest that to recoil from such challenges would be tragic.

Our world is one of shifting complexity – indeed it is becoming increasingly fluid and ever more complex, and yes, admittedly, the atmosphere in many member states is calling for more splendid isolation rather than for an ambitious rescaling of the objectives and resources of the Union’s Foreign Policy and Neighbourhood Policy.

Yet, we also have good reasons to believe that progress is not only possible, but achievable, at global level in tackling the root causes of such phenomena as mass migration. The two international agreements concluded last year on climate change and on sustainable development are milestones in that regard, and there is evidence that they have widespread citizen support - where they have been explained. Both agendas invite us to complete a shift in mindset and discourse. They invite us to a shift in paradigm in our thought, policy and practice, and I am convinced that Europe can – that Europe must – play a leading role in bringing forth that transformation.

We Europeans, who have learned so much from cooperation, have a great deal to contribute to a renewed global discourse on our inescapable interdependence with all those who dwell on this fragile planet. We can take such an important part in advancing, not just the previous North-South conversation, but in a new conversation about expressing our humanity itself in a sustainable way and thus securing its collective future.

We have arrived, as I said at the outset of this speech, at a critical juncture in the history of the European project. We are at a moment when a new departure is required – when a new departure is possible. We can, together, breathe new life in the European vision, and in doing so, we will also be saving a model on which the peoples of other continents have placed their gaze and considered exemplary for their own future cooperation.

To conclude, if I may, in a genuine spirit of European friendship, paraphrase the national anthem of another European nation – I let you speculate which one – it is my hope that the men, women and children who are currently risking their life at sea to reach Europe will be able to say:

“Europe is not yet lost, so long as we still live”