Media Library


‘Solidarity in Europe - Achieving Authenticity in the European Street’

European University Institute, Florence, Italy, 10 May 2018

I am delighted to be here today.  It is always enriching for the human spirit to visit Italy, this most beautiful country, the origin of so much of the world’s culture and creativity; all the more so to be in Florence, a city forever associated with names like Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo. 

It is always a particular pleasure to speak at a university, especially when the invitation comes from such a distinguished one and one which has the capacity for an interface with policy. The attraction of speaking here today at the European University Institute is not just the opportunity it offers for engagement with bright and enquiring minds but also because of the essential role, I would even say urgent role, which universities can and must play in understanding the complexity of our world and in addressing its challenges, empowered with adequate scholarly reflection and commitment to humanity in the fulness of its possibility and capacity 

I’m pleased, of course, to have been given the opportunity to participate in this timely, and indeed urgent, conference on “The State of the Union”; and because the theme of the conference is perhaps the most important one facing our continent, namely “Solidarity in Europe”. 

Allow me, if I may, to say a word about the two venues in Florence for this conference. Today we meet in Fiesole where much of The Decameron is set. Boccaccio might almost have been thinking of the role of universities and of the importance of fresh and creative thinking in Europe when he wrote: 

“You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, and exert the utmost power of your mind. If one way does not lead to the desired meaning, take another; if obstacles arise, then still another; until, if your strength holds out, you will find that clear which once looked dark.” 

This captures well the importance, this week and always, of moving beyond received wisdom towards the honest open reflection and original thought which the European debate requires. 

Above all we need, in the European Union, a pluralism of scholarship. It is something we may be losing.  It was John Henry Newman who wrote, ‘in a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’.

Tomorrow the conference meets at Palazzo Vecchio which has been the seat of civic government for much of the period since it was built more than half a millennium ago. Michelangelo’s David, which arguably celebrates human beauty more wonderfully than any other statue, stands outside the Palazzo quietly dominating the piazza, even if the original statue is, of course, now in safekeeping elsewhere. Michelangelo’s David should remind us of three things which are essential for the European Union as we consider its future: 

First, that respect for culture, in its diversity, must be at the heart of our public discourse and our public space, of our common enterprise; 

Second, that the impact of our policy decisions on human beings must be foremost in our thoughts and in all our endeavours;

Finally, in a contest as to future direction there is no inevitability that the Goliaths of this world will come out on top; no certainty that might will be proved right. 

Despite the many historic achievements in the history of our continent, many centuries of which were tarnished by war, suffering, expropriation of resources and exploitation of colonised peoples, the European Union today faces a unique opportunity and responsibility to assert, indeed where necessary reassert, its founding values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in a world in which those values are increasingly challenged. 

Solidarity in Europe, the timely theme of this conference, must be, I suggest, the foundation on which our Union’s action is built. It must be the star which guides our action at home and in the wider world. 

We have entered a period when, for the first time in many years, the future shape of the European Union has become a matter of contestation and debate. In the shadow of Brexit and of social forces which have given rise to so much doubt across Europe, we Europeans are invited to define, through deliberation, the outlines of the European Union that we seek. 

Political and institutional leaders across the Union are making their contributions to that debate. 

The so-called Future of Europe debate has been launched because we need together to identify the significant reforms which are needed to reconnect the European Union with its citizens. If we fail in that aim, the debate would serve little purpose.  In contributing to that debate, I strongly share President Macron’s view that our Union must be renewed and rebuilt from below.  We may differ, however, in terms of the degree to which our assumptions about the connection between economy and society must also be changed, from the top, and down through the institutional architecture.  

Business as usual cannot address the challenges we face. May I suggest that we have an obligation to Europe’s history, to our people and to the wider world to examine and address those challenges, and the conversation on these issues must involve us all.  

Our first obligation to Europe is to understand and affirm the nature of the European Project, the nature, form and aspirations for the Union we seek to make and to explain not only what is but what might be better to our citizens. While reform should be our driving aim, if we fail to understand or recognise what is failing, the fulness of what is in need of reform, we will likely set our course in the wrong direction. We must understand Europe in all its complexity if we are to preserve and strengthen it. 

We must above all avoid being trapped in any single paradigm of thought. We can, for example, achieve a reworking of economic strategies by re-locating economics within culture, within a political economy. Centres of learning, such as the European University Institute, can play a necessary and valued role in developing that understanding.  While many doctoral theses are written to help us to understand the European Union, I would like today to mention briefly just three points which seem to me fundamental to understanding our Union.   

First, we must understand the diverse roots of the European Project. One of the most morally compelling visions of European internationalism - considered as one of founding documents of European integration - emerged from the Italian resistance movement, in the manifesto composed in 1941 on the island of Ventotene by Altiero Spinelli, a member of the Italian Communist Party, and his colleagues.  

That is not, of course, to say that the European Union did not have other important roots reflecting other political persuasions, but it is to give the lie to any idea that in its conception the European Project was simply and exclusively about capital and markets. 

Indeed, while the seminal Schuman Declaration, drawn up in 1950 by the visionary Christian Democrat who gave the document its name, spoke of production it also spoke of peace, and while it spoke of modernisation and markets it also spoke of equalising and improving living conditions for workers. President Mattarella has called our attention to this in his opening address this morning.

This is a breadth of vision we need today.  It is a breadth of vision so many of our European citizens see us as having lost.  

The objectives to which the Union commits itself, which are now contained in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union, reflect inter alia the inheritance of some of the most egalitarian and humane traditions which, although their origin is by no means confined to Europe, saw an important flourishing in Europe. The rich scholarship, philosophy, moral instinct and generous impulse that contributed to and drew on an enriched European thought yielded an impulse towards the promotion of social justice and protection, equality between men and women, solidarity between generations, economic and social cohesion and solidarity between Member States.  These principles lie at the very root of the European Project and reach their fullest European expression today in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The second point I would like to underline, with a view to our understanding of our Union, concerns our way of doing business. The European Union’s culture of accommodation, respect and compromise has been with us so long that perhaps we now take it for granted. 

The decision-making process of the European Union is complex, painstaking and can be frustrating. Like every human construct, it is imperfect. It makes mistakes, sometimes big mistakes. But our calm, respectful and, when we are at our best, rational way of doing business, underpinned crucially by the rule of law, should never be taken for granted on a continent which has been the scene and the source of so much suffering. 

It should never be taken for granted by countries which, even recently, have known dictatorship. It cannot be taken for granted by small countries which know all too well the realities of power when it is unconstrained by institutions in which all are represented and by the binding rule of law. And equally it should not be ignored by large countries which may be tempted by the illusion that in a modern world of globalised trade and finance they can go it alone. 

We should always strive to improve the way we work in the European Union, and be vigilant when its principles are called into question, but we should also celebrate it by giving authentic credence to its values and their sources. We must not allow those values which citizens need to be drowned out by a disconnected set of discourses from different silos, as it were, giving us ‘silo speak’ rather than ‘citizen speak’.

My third point about understanding the Union goes back to a point I made at the outset namely that people, our citizens, and the citizens of the planet, must always be foremost in our thoughts and in our endeavours. It is thus imperative that we not only find better ways of explaining to people how our Union works but also better ways of learning from people what form of European Union they want. The opportunity of the current debate about the future of Europe must not be squandered. I am pleased that public debate about the future is being encouraged across so many of the Member States of the Union and that, in that context, the Irish Government has been conducting a citizens’ dialogue. 

We cannot and should not wish away the complexity of the European Union, but we cannot be lazy as to how we present and respect that complexity.  Spectacle constructed for the media must not be allowed to replace the necessary discourse upon which our, and our citizens, future depends. Language matters. It must not impede the new economic literacy that we need.  Media management cannot substitute for in-depth discussion informed by scholarship and commitment to future generations.   

I would like to touch briefly on one issue which has in a sense been delivered to us by special delivery rather than one we would have chosen to address, namely Brexit. I’m conscious that much of the work by our diplomats on the agenda of the Union necessarily concerns managing current challenges rather than looking ahead to reshaping our shared future. 

Of course, like so many of you, I regret the decision of our nearest neighbour. Although I’m conscious of the ongoing debate in the UK about some of the circumstances around the conduct of the referendum, we must accept the decision of the British people, as indeed we should accept any other democratic decision they may choose to take. 

I would like to pay warm tribute to the support of our European partners and of the European institutions for Ireland’s concerns in the Brexit negotiations and, in particular, for the unqualified support we have received for the maintenance of the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects. 

The European Union has for several decades provided generous political and financial support for peace on our small island. It has also, over time, provided much of the wider context in which peace was possible. Few could have predicted the central and necessary role that the European Commission, with support from all our partners, would be playing today in seeking to ensure the full protection of what has been achieved in our Peace Process, in effect the maintenance of the status quo in the application of the Agreement on the island of Ireland. There could be no better example of the solidarity which is the theme of this week’s conference.

Jacques Delors once said that “Europe does not just need fire-fighters, it needs architects too”. It is important therefore, as Delors implied, to take opportunities such as this conference, to raise our eyes above the road immediately ahead and shift our gaze towards the horizon, to look beyond the immediate roadblocks to consider where we are heading and whether we need to adjust our direction.

There could not be a more important guiding theme for our reflections on the future of the Union this week than the theme chosen for this conference, namely solidarity. 

Solidarity was in the DNA of the Founders of the European Union, so when our solidarity is inadequate or lacking we call into question our very nature. Solidarity is not a possession to be stored away. It is a living impulse. It must be no mere aspiration but something of concrete achievement and policy decision to which we can point. 

Internal and external solidarity are necessarily linked. One of the great tasks of the next decade will be to achieve cohesiveness within the communities and between the communities of our common European home. It is only by achieving that goal – by rebuilding our capacity and willingness to work together to lead fulfilling lives in all spheres of human activity – that the Union can play the full leadership role of which it is capable in confronting the global challenges which are common to all humanity: the pressing demand for just and sustainable development; the imperative of vindicating the human rights of those fleeing war, persecution and famine; and above all the urgent necessity to address the causes of climate change and to mitigate its consequences.

The most urgent task is to rebuild its internal cohesion on the principle of solidarity. I have no doubt that the European Union has within it the capacity to bring into being a new discourse that leads to a fairer, more inclusive Union. To achieve that we must, as a first step, be ready to challenge failed and failing paradigms. Let us not forget, as we meet in Florence which provides Galileo’s final resting place, that more than 400 years ago the Roman Inquisition described Galileo’s belief that the earth revolves around the sun as “foolish and absurd in philosophy and formally heretical”.

Surely all of us who seek a Union capable of accomplishing these great tasks before in this century cannot rely on any failed orthodoxies, whether in thought or action. The intersection of all of these matters – climate change, migration, the role of the state and the future of our economy – has been considered in depth by scholars such as Professor Ian Gough, a former Jean Monnet Fellow at this institution.

If we are ready to challenge old and unconvincing certainties, to have the open minds which real scholarship requires, then we can preserve and even strengthen the vision of the European Union. In doing that we can re-energise a model in which the peoples of other continents have placed, perhaps increasingly place, their hopes.

As we consider the strengthening of European solidarity, it is essential to recognise that the Founding Treaty of the European Union, while some might wish it were so, was far from being a neoliberal charter. The Union, properly interpreted, was not envisaged to consecrate private profit over public purpose. Rather the Union was to be a bedrock of profound values and overarching rules. Above all it should be seen as a process - a context for creative and open debate between our elected Governments; a structure for framing and evolving policy through democratic and open discussion in our institutions and parliaments. It is vital that that debate and discussion be enriched by contributions from wider society, including academia. The emphasis must be on a courageous questioning untrammelled by preconceptions. 

In strengthening internal solidarity, it is important to recognise that the challenges we face are not just economic. They are social, political and cultural. The form of the market calls for redefinition. The market must not be accepted as an unregulated market, as end point rather than instrument.  Human beings, all of our citizens, must be at the heart of our endeavours. We are, after all, the best of our moral social scholarship tells us, social beings, not simply consumers, targets, to be treated as commodities within a totalising version of an unregulated and insatiable market.

The dignity of work, therefore, in all its facets and in its essence as a shared human activity, must be at the centre of the values by which we want to live. A first and urgent task must be to restore sustainable and fulfilling employment to the citizens of the European Union. There is nothing more corrosive to society and more crushing to the individual than endemic unemployment, or the insecurity and uncertainty of the vulnerability of a precariat. 

Unemployment in the EU has come down and we should welcome that. Yet, there are still nearly 18 million men and women without work. More shockingly, nearly 18% of our young people are unemployed, with the figure being much higher in some Member States. Where short term work has been created it is too often precarious work. We must define and create work in a way that can provide the necessary self-fulfilment and protections of the worker.

We must be cautious too when we use words such as ‘populism’. Populism must not be confused with popular will. However, we must at the same time be very forthright in condemning the rise of those populists who, through the fomenting of fear, relentlessly exploit the anxieties of the vulnerable and the frustration of those who are left behind. Nothing would give more succour to abuses of such populism than for us to fail to create just and equal societies with real opportunities for participation.  

The European Union, given the political will, and its strong legal framework and tradition, could - if it demonstrates imagination and determination in addressing its own challenges - make a significant contribution in confronting the excessive deregulation and erosion of rights that is emerging at global level.

However, to do that we need to revisit the relationship between economic and social policy in a fundamental way. While I therefore warmly welcome the convening of the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg in November last year which aimed at boosting growth, creating fair jobs and fostering equal opportunities, and see it as a step towards creating a strong and tangible social dimension, obviously much further progress is needed. The Summit’s recognition of the need to put people first and that employment and social progress are first and foremost created on the ground was a good starting point. 

It was an attempt, I would suggest, to reconnect with the project of the European social model which is rooted in our recent history and which recognises that solidarity among citizens and social cohesion are values that must be fostered and maintained – not as mere by-products of, or compensations for, as residual of a successful economy but as foundational elements of economy in their own right. Our leadership, our authenticity in terms of concern for our citizens is tested by our willingness, or lack of it, to embrace new paradigms of practice and theory, including in the economy, to emerge; our willingness to allow what is failing to be discarded, to make way for what needs to be born.  

The 20 principles set out in the European Pillar of Social Rights which was proclaimed by the Gothenburg Summit are a step forward and many of them point generally in the right direction. But the Union needs to go further and to start by delivering on the commitments which it has made. 

The principles agreed in Gothenburg indicate, for example, that everyone has a right to quality and inclusive education, training and life-long learning; that employment relationships that lead to precarious working conditions shall be prevented; and that workers have the right to fair wages that provide for a decent standard of living.

Such good principles cannot be allowed to remain aspirational; if they do they will merely feed into the disillusion which is evident in so much of our society. The agreed principles must now, urgently, be transformed into principles of practice supported by Member States. Pending social legislation should be driven forward and the further necessary legislation should be tabled. This is essential if the social principles are to achieve authenticity where it matters most: on the European Street.

There are, of course, other priorities on the European agenda: the completion of the single market, including the digital single market, and of the Banking Union as well as the next steps towards Economic and Monetary Union. A sufficient basis for the legitimisation of such developments depends on a prior achievement of social cohesion, and such developments must be subordinated to that aim. These priorities can only deliver their intended benefit to our citizens if located within a social vision, if put forward in the right way, can bring great benefits to our citizens. 

It is not for me to be prescriptive as regards the details of how to take these dossiers forward. However, it is my strong conviction that unless solidarity, within societies and between Member States is demonstrated - a very great deal more solidarity than has been demonstrated in the past - our efforts, and any short term or superficial success, will be hollow.

Solidarity should also characterise the Union’s approach to the wider world. The stronger and more cohesive we can be internally the more effective a role we can play externally to that end.

In speaking of the external role of the Union, we should acknowledge that the role of this continent over the centuries, as seen by much of the world, has often not been a glorious one. There is nothing essentially moral in the varying practices of Europeans or the role our members have played in history; even if, needless to say, many Europeans have made very positive contributions to our world. 

We need to transact our past if we are to remove the capacity of a past wrong to limit our present, curtail our future.

The warm East-West relations that have been created between Ireland and its neighbours required a facing of the past on both of our parts. Surely it would be positive, let us take the relationship between European nations and Africa, that a similar clearing of the past take place, with the aim of not losing the opportunity for dialogue in the present and our joint hopes for the future.

In all humility but with every confidence, our Union should take as its starting point the urgent and growing need to defend multilateralism. Multilateralism is an important form of solidarity. It provides a context in which solidarity makes sense and can have maximum effect. In a world in which insularity often seems to be taking hold, in which for some patriotism and selfishness are increasingly intertwined, in which there are those who would even beat their ploughshares back into swords, the European Union has both an opportunity and a responsibility to provide leadership on the importance of working together through agreed institutions.      

Resiling to the inevitability of war, abandoning the prospect of peace, reviving the literacy of democracy, bringing a new literacy of economics into being – these are choices that will, in how they are made, define the very future of multi-lateral institutions. 

Recently I spoke at the United Nations as to the importance of not allowing the strut of the most powerful, and the arms industry, to drown out the whispers from the gallery of the UN that yearn for peace, the elimination of poverty, freedom for minorities, respect for indigeneity.  

The United Nations lies at the very heart of the multilateral system. Like all human organisations, it can lay no claim to perfection. To cite just one example, the UN Security Council should become more representative of the wider international community, in particular the Global South.  The UN’s weaknesses, however, are no reason to talk it down. Rather they constitute every reason for building it up. 

The UN remains the essential framework for the assertion of global values and provides the only global context for aspiring to the solidarity of all humanity. The European Union and its Member States must continue to work strongly in support of the United Nations with which they share not only important values but also a fundamental commitment to multilateralism as a way of doing business. 

The Union has an important role, through the UN and elsewhere. By working with others to defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law while avoiding hubris, and in no sense claiming perfection for ourselves, the European Union now finds itself in a context that offers leadership, a role which we should take forward, obviously with full respect for others on the one hand, but with determination on the other, offering a strong diplomacy, new mechanisms for achieving peace, avoiding the lure of the international arms industry and its advocates.

The Sustainable Development Goals can be seen as a charter for global solidarity. They challenge all of us to deal with trade, debt, the environment, intellectual and spiritual freedom, as well as cultural diversity, in a spirit of justice, partnership and mutual solidarity. I am proud of the leadership role that Ireland played in the negotiation of those goals. 

The international community must now commit to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and to realising their full potential. The European Union carries in a sense three separate responsibilities in taking forward those goals: the responsibility of history; the responsibility of an inclusive and sustainable prosperity; and the responsibility which flows from our values, including notably the principle of solidarity.

Africa offers the European Union both a particular challenge and an opportunity to bring new models of a connection between economy, ethics, and sustainable ecology into being. The Union itself and its Member States constitute the largest aid donors to the African continent. However, the Union should collectively do much more on a continent where so many still suffer from hunger but which at the same time has so much potential for the future. 

While the Union should continue to help to build resilient and accountable states in Africa, states which will deliver for their young populations and which in future can be strong partners with us in achieving sustainability. Europe’s willingness to transact the previous relationship with Africa with the new scholarship of contemporary Africa would be of immense assistance. The European Union should give a lead in removing the impediments to the transfer of the science and technology which Africa needs to achieve sustainability and respond to climate change.

Climate change is not only an environmental challenge but also a challenge of security, development and justice – it is an existential threat to our planet.  

The Paris Agreement in 2015, of course, left very significant challenges ahead. However, when compared with the disappointing failures of the past, the acceptance of the scientific reality of climate change and the reflection of that reality in a universal, legally-binding agreement remains of immense significance. What is required now, first and foremost, is that all of those who made commitments must stand by them and deliver on them. The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has rightly insisted at last year’s Climate Conference in Bonn that our duty to future generations also requires us to raise our level of ambition.  

The contribution of the European Union is central to what has been achieved on climate change and European leadership is now required more than ever in taking forward that achievement. In this area also, the Union’s approach must rediscover fully its founding value of solidarity. Climate justice demands that those countries and peoples who have least contributed to the problem of climate change should not be expected to pay the highest price to resolve it. Priority should therefore be given to accelerating support to the Least Developed Countries including the mobilisation of the necessary resources.

Perhaps the greatest current challenge which the Union faces in terms of solidarity relates to migrants. As Pope Francis has reminded us, “migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity”. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants delivered a strong message of solidarity and contains detailed commitments which, if implemented, would ensure a more humane, dignified and compassionate response by the international community to the plight of refugees and migrants. I’m pleased that Ireland played an important role as co-facilitator of that Declaration. However, the consequences of the continued failure to transform into effective action the promises which have been made are often evident and sometimes tragic. 

I would like, as others have done, to pay strong tribute to Italy for the leadership role it has played in recent years in saving the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to escape extreme poverty, hunger, conflict, and ethnic cleansing; people seeking in Europe a better life for themselves and for their families, as Europeans have sought a better life abroad in centuries past. I’m pleased that the Irish Naval Service has been able to provide some support to Italy’s efforts. 

Clearly the issue of migration in the Union is complex and sensitive, not least because of the threat of significant forces in our societies today which seek to exploit people’s fears and to use opportunities to direct those fears against those whom they portray as different from ourselves. This should not make us hesitate from providing the new institutional, including financial, arrangements appropriate for a collective response.  

Let me say in conclusion that I believe we should remain committed to the European vision and to the potential for the founding principles of the European Union to provide the foundations of a renewed and strengthened Union. To make that possible, we need a creative and courageous vision at this crucial moment in the history of our continent. I believe that what is required, as the timely theme of this week’s conference so rightly implies, is for us to rediscover the enabling and inspiring principle of solidarity, solidarity within the Union and solidarity with the wider world. 

If I may, I will conclude by returning to Michelangelo who once observed that:-

“every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”. 

We are in a sense the sculptors of this European generation, still working on a block  of valuable marble which has been passed down to us from the founding fathers of the European Union. If solidarity remains our guiding principle, I have no doubt that our European future, the outlines of which we can see but much of which remains to be discovered by our own chisels, will be a source pride for ourselves and an object of admiration for others. Go raibh maith agaibh, thank you.