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First Working Session: Facing Efficiently the Economic and Refugee Crisis Hall 5 Zappeon, Megaron, Athens Friday, 11th October, 2019

Speech by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

First Working Session:

“Facing Efficiently the Economic and Refugee Crisis”

Hall 5 Zappeon, Megaron, Athens

11:00 am, Friday, 11th October, 2019




Your Excellencies, good morning.

It is fitting that we meet at what is a time of renewal for the EU. A new European Parliament and Commission gives Europe the opportunity to set a clear course for the next five years. We must with expedition and enthusiasm use this moment wisely and for the benefit of all our citizens.

On matters of economy, the citizens of Europe rightly expect of the EU investment, innovation and core as to the foundations, the framework conditions, for strong, stable, inclusive economies with decent jobs and fair opportunities – this is essential if we are to maintain support for the Union and, above all and most important, to ensure human flourishing. 

A decade ago, the sharp decline in the global economy exposed a number of flaws within our prevailing economic paradigm, including our exposure to speculative sources, which, through their influence on the banking system, dislodged the real economy and resulted in social distress for those least likely to have been principals in the speculative bubble. This paradigm was influenced by theories of extreme free-market economics, unrestrained, unregulated market dominance and a communications order with a discourse that ‘privileged’ aggressive individualism.

Social cohesion became a forgotten reference in the Lisbon Treaty, and references to social economy or redistribution were eschewed in favour of society influenced by insatiability and private greed.

This paradigm, largely uncontested, emerged over the past four decades with consequences for us all, our institutions, and indeed our democracies. It is a paradigm that made assumptions and demands regarding the connection between scholarship, politics, economy, and society – indeed, the inter-relationship of societies.

This paradigm, neoliberalism, has failed us all and has resulted in increasing inequality and ecological peril.

The period since the economic crisis has been a long, painful process, the scars of which remain abundantly visible across our continent. Social cohesion has been damaged enormously. Over the same years, we have also had to deal with the social, economic and political stresses arising from the migration crisis – stresses which have been particularly acute in some countries.

The times in which we live – with solidarity haemorrhaging and multiple crises requiring multilateral responses – force us to reaffirm our common European values. They provide a sense of urgency to our actions that might otherwise have been absent.

However, the citizens of Europe, and especially younger citizens, crave a new version of economy, one rooted in a paradigm shift to an ecological-social model, the widespread adoption of which is not only an important gesture towards intergenerational solidarity, it is our only hope to avoid ecological and social catastrophe.

The mere placing of an ecological or social gloss on our existing economic paradigm, a mere refinement of that which exists, which has been proposed by many as a solution to the ecological and inequality crises we face, is simply insufficient, indeed it is at best a distraction from the challenges at hand.

I am glad, too, that we are discussing today the refugee crisis and the wider issue of migration. We need to move from an ad hoc approach on this issue, to work as partners to resolve the humanitarian crisis, and find a more sustainable, comprehensive solution that will involve consensus among Member States based on solidarity and responsibility.

In my address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, I applauded the leadership that the UN Secretary-General Guterres has shown on this issue. As he has clearly stated, the only way for migration to be sustainable and safe, not irregular and inhumane, is for it to be out of volition and not necessity.

We in Ireland understand well the forces that can push people to leave their homes and embark on an uncertain future. We also understand the positive contribution that migrants and refugees can make to development, in countries of both origin and destination – something else that the story of Ireland and our diaspora abroad illustrates so well.

Such migration brings with it an abundance of positives, not least the evidence that 10-12% of global GDP is provided by migrants. No economy can function without migrants. They provide essential, frontline services, and it has been shown empirically that migrants are net contributors to their adopted home country within three years of settling. A recent study from Oxford Economics[1] concluded that migrants contributed more to the Exchequer than the average adult in the UK.

That 71 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide, with 26 million cross-border refugees, reflects a great human and institutional failure. To address the crisis, we need to focus on the economic ‘push’ factors – improving employment and livelihood opportunities in developing countries, encouraging and supporting job creation, and investing in education and training that will enable people to do those jobs.

However, we also need to think of the non-economic factors behind migratory flows: building social justice, improving security and creating a lasting peace, addressing climate change.

Many migrants desire to return home. A multilateral approach that focuses on resolving the ‘push’ factors is needed to assist those who wish to return to their native lands. We must encourage social and political reform so that young people, in particular, feel valued and have a stake in their own countries. We need to strive for equality, and the promise of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind.

We need also to look critically and honestly at our own culpability, as member states of the European Union, in contributing to the political and social instability in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere that has driven so many people to our shores.

Dangerous shifts in climate are placing huge stresses on communities, where ecosystems can no longer support populations. Unless we collectively take action to prevent catastrophic climate change, as well as assist communities to prepare for, and adapt to, changing climates, these population flows driven by climate shifts will only increase.

Solidarity is key. Europe has for many decades been a leader in championing the rights of refugees and, since 2008, has processed some 6 million asylum applications. To quote Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,

“Only if Europe is strong and unified will Europeans be able to deal with refugee and migration issues in a principled, practical and effective manner.”

Thank you.


[1] The Fiscal Impact of Immigration in the UK, June 2018.