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“The Future of Europe: Re-Balancing Ecology, Economics and Ethics” - Lecture by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

University of Leipzig, Thursday 4th July 2019

Rector Schücking, 
Minister President Kretschmer,
Lord Mayor Jung,
Tánaiste Simon Coveney,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me here today and for your warm words of welcome. My thanks to all of you for coming to this address this morning. I am particularly grateful to the students who have taken time out from examination preparation to be here.  My thanks also to those members of the Irish community in Saxony and indeed in neighbouring states who have travelled here today. 

All good universities share a commitment to learning, to building from past achievements into future thinking.  Many boast of grand halls and prestigious, historic buildings.  Few, however, have the courage and vision to create a space such as this Paulinum. It is a magnificent achievement, and I salute the university, the city and the State of Saxony for creating this space which so harmoniously marries the ancient and the modern, the religious and the secular.

I am told that in his Leipzig years, the great composer, Johan Sebastian Bach – with his respect for the long reach of time and with a concern for what might endure and be universal – lost interest in preparing new music for the then Paulinum Church, which stood on this site, one of four churches for which he was responsible. 

He was frustrated, we are told, by the fact that the city would not make more resources available to him. I certainly appreciate Bach’s lament! However, I am sure that the gifted composer himself would approve of this space.

As evidenced by the Paulinum, creating the new in the shadow of the past, building for the future while recognising all that has gone before, and using the materials available in present time, is a challenge well known and well understood in Leipzig. An ethical engagement with the past in all its complexity is an unavoidable moral, but, I believe, enabling task which allows the light illuminate the present, enables us to see the imagined forms of what could be better, and invites us to a more harmonious existence, helps surely in seeking a future of fulfilment.

This is an issue that I, as President of Ireland, have sought to address on several occasions in the past. It is an ongoing challenge for all of us as citizens, and must also be an issue that is properly addressed and given due consideration by Member States, and indeed with the European Union itself in the unfolding architecture of its institutions, asking of their relationship to their aspirations and concerns, how decisions echo, fail to echo, or are dissonant on the European street.

I have visited Leipzig in the past and am aware of its cultural heritage. The city of Leipzig has played a significant role, not only in German history but also in European history. 

This visit I make today is the first ever State or official visit by an Irish President to Saxony, or indeed anywhere in the Eastern part of Germany other than Berlin. I truly hope that my visit will initiate a renewed and deeper relationship both with you and with your neighbouring states. My visit, as President of Ireland, reflects Ireland’s commitment to the deepening and widening of the Irish presence throughout Germany. Our wish is to forge new friendships.

May I acknowledge, too, the special role of this university in promoting and protecting minority languages.  I know that this is an important seat of Sorbian studies, and I am delighted that it has also become a centre for the study of the Irish language in Germany.

Our individual languages enrich the tapestry of European life, each in their own unique manner. We have a duty of care to them that is intergenerational, ensuring that they remain alive and vibrant for future generations.

That we have the Irish language in use and on the curriculum today is due to the assistance given by a number of German scholars to Dr Douglas de Híde, among whom was Dr Kumo Meyer who died in Leipzig in 1919. May I acknowledge Professor Sabine Asmus and her students who are with us today for all their efforts in this regard.

Gabhaim buíochas libh agus treaslaím libh as bhur n-iarrachtaí.

I am honoured also that, after the reception here this morning, I will have the opportunity to visit the St Nicholas Church and pay tribute to the courage of those civilian protestors thirty years ago, whose courage and determination paved the way for what would become a seismic geo-political shift across our continent, with their peaceful actions leading to the reunification of Germany and to a new era of partnership in Europe.

Now once again, we are at a significant moment in the European Union. We are called upon in the face of new challenges, some within, others external. We are challenged to renew our commitment to be together as a Union, to embrace an adequate discourse on the changes we urgently need to make, changes that will require courage if we are to defend the space of intellectual rigour, allow freedom of discourse, allow policy change.

As I talk to you this morning about the future of Europe, may I suggest some radical changes we need to make in our thinking and our policies. It is my belief that there is an urgent need to make new connections between ecology, economics and ethics, and not only for the sake of the European Union, but for the sake of our shared fragile planet, that we seek to forge a new path on which we can travel together in the interests of all our citizens.

My critique and proposals go beyond adjustment, or the mere placing of an ecological or humanitarian lens on existing public policies or even on existing economic development paradigms. Such an exercise has been tried, given rhetorical expression and has not succeeded. No authentic structuring of such an approach, by way of delivery, has happened or has been experienced in the formal or institutional discourse, and most important it has not found its way to the European street where trust in words and actions needs urgently to be recovered to achieve a convincing authenticity of policy.

We have, as a global community, to respond to the consequences of climate change, the need to achieve sustainability, to achieve a radical shift to a new economic paradigm in a decarbonised world. An eco-social political economy perspective is required to achieve what we may have agreed as principles.

As I am speaking in a university, may I stress that the required paradigm shift needs a space of epistemological freedom in our institutes of learning, by which I mean staff and students being allowed to think, university teachers given freedom to teach at least pluralistically, and fundamentally, free to critique a current orthodox capitalist system that is unregulated and unaccountable in its consequences for society and social policy.

Change is not possible if its outline is not allowed to be considered in a deliberative way and its principles taught. However, necessary change is being resisted by a combination of those frightened, rendered mute or stricken with intellectual lethargy, by wielders of corporate power, opponents of state regulation, and a minority of citizens who are happy to have gained access to an ever-more insatiable accumulation process.

The scale of the change that is required is, to my mind, similar to that which occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe, an invocation of a moral future of peace similar perhaps in scale, scope and significance as that advocated in the Ventotene Manifesto, in its day by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi.

That statement, written by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi in 1941, which became the programme of the (Italian-based) European Federalist Movement. Its extraordinary vision spoke of human needs and purpose beyond borders, had, as its core objective, the creation of a solid international state as the main purpose and then, having won national independence, to be used as an instrument for achieving international unity. European Federalism and World Federalism are presented in the Ventotene Manifesto as a means to prevent future wars. The manifesto is widely regarded as the birth of European federalism.

Then too in its turn, the much-quoted Schuman Declaration reminded us that, “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan.” I am well aware that there is a tendency among some of the dispirited to look with nostalgia at such statements and recall the days of the pioneers of the European Union: Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monnet and others, as moments of inspiration when such suggested new ideas could catch the mood and became a reality. 

Yes, it is important to recall how they came together to share a purpose that was drawn from and transcends a diversity of interests and sought to plant the seeds for peaceful cooperation and political union. However, we need to consider nostalgia with care. Nostalgia is often our response when we feel inadequate in the face of new challenges, a prelude to a confession of failure or desperation, thinking we might, in the absence of any perceived or earned hope from present intellectual work, deal with the future by reaching back into the past, as though the tools of yesterday might equip us for the needs of tomorrow. The onus is on each generation to invent, even to re-invent, the tools for its analysis and existence in the complexity of its time. That I take to be of the achievements of Jurgen Hoberman as he breaks away from the pessimism that could be taken from Theodore Adorno’s work.

We are neither at the end of history or of ideas. That was a hubristic construct of Francis Fakayama scandalously shared by too many insufficiently withdrawn. There is a further danger, of course, of our present been given a rationalisation, by a distorted or limited vision of the past, origins that were mixed in motivational terms. However, one looks at such texts as the Schuman Declaration, stand as example, are a challenge to all future generations to anticipate and adapt to changing circumstances and to meet new demands, as needed. 

Our challenges now must draw forth a shared perspective because of our interdependency, an interdependency that goes beyond issues of trade. They are shared challenges requiring a shared response that goes beyond borders. Resiling to any narrow view of nationalism speaks, not as it may have in the past of a nation’s demand of freedom for its people, but rather, now, often in desperation as a defence of narrow interests. Interests that facilitate inequality and the unrestrained accumulation by the few at the cost of the many. Neither in international relations can we accept the rhetoric or indeed renewed preparations for war between the most heavily armed as a substitute for engaged and authoritative diplomacy.

Sustaining peace, achieving peace, is why the United Nations was formed. Like Germany, Ireland is a staunch supporter of the United Nations, and membership of the UN has played an important role in our development. Both of us, through the United Nations, not only support a fair rules-based order in international affairs, we exist, survive and prosper because of it. 

Together, in peacekeeping, disarmament, sustainable development, climate, nutrition, human rights and humanitarian assistance, we have striven to match our words with actions and funding, offering support to multilateral structures. While the UN system has flaws, Ireland and Germany share a conviction that there is no better way to meaningfully address the common opportunities and threats that face us. It is our best available space and we must defend and support it.

I chose to come to Leipzig to present these ideas because I firmly believe that the task of envisioning, of renewing Europe, of future-proofing the Union, cannot take place exclusively in meetings organised in the capitals of Member States. There must be a European conversation that is widely diverse and inclusive, and it must be supported by those institutions and citizens given the privileged space of intellectual work.

Europe is not in any exclusive way a union of capital cities, but of all the people in our cities, towns, villages and rural hinterlands. Between our peoples we may have achieved a capacity to communicate, but in current conditions it is an individualised, privatised experience of communication, often ephemeral, trivial, one that cannot replace the previous and now fragile shared world of public service broadcasting, pluralism in media, public speech in the agora. We are made to discuss our present circumstance and possible shared futures in these new conditions, but we should not be pessimistic. We have a resource in that we share, a respect for intellectual work and in addition to the benefits of reason, the music of the heart. Germany and Ireland’s sharing a respect for ideas is as important as sharing innovation and trade, and they go together, these sharings.

What better place to discuss the future of Europe than in Leipzig, where the great German poet Friedrich Schiller, first composed his wonderful lyric, An Ode to Joy, with a version of some of his words put to music by Beethoven for the fourth movement of his masterful Ninth Symphony, that beautiful, rousing expression of musical brilliance which was adopted as the anthem of our shared European Union.

Drawing on that spirit, may I suggest a fundamental reflection on what is meant when we use in our discourse the words ‘Europe’ and ‘European’. Are we merely talking about the geographical coordinates of the continent and peripheral island states that comprise Europe as it is known in its physical sense?

Are we talking of a block of consumers, or a trade bloc? How often when we speak of a European Union are we speaking of a social Europe? In other words, what does it mean to those of us living now, and to generations yet to live in what we call a Union, to be ‘European’ in the early 21st century? What set of shared values and ethics do we as Europeans aspire to uphold, defend, build upon and promote across our Member States and indeed out into the world?

Despite the many historic achievements of our continent, many centuries of which were tarnished by war and suffering, the European Union today still retains through its legacy of thought, its commitment to intellectual discourse, its openness to undo the trammels of Empire and struggle against imperialism, a unique opportunity and responsibility to assert and, where necessary, reassert, its 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.

These values are neither abstract, nor are they optional extras, nor are they confined by borders. They go to our very core and should be respected and upheld by all Member States. Central to these values and their vindication is the concept and circumstance of free movement of people, exercising their hopes, bringing with them their stories and their cultural endowments.

Indeed, migration, inwards and outwards, has been a key aspect of European history for centuries. Migration was taking place long before the origins of the Common Market and the European Economic Community. Migration, inwards and outwards, has shaped who we are as Europeans, our influences, our values, our sensibilities, indeed it has been part of the basis of our prosperity.

However, this prosperity, fuelled by assumptions of unlimited ever-accelerated growth and of an infinite source or resources, cannot avoid the consequences it has helped occasion, including the impact of climate change. It is instructive perhaps to stand back and look at the features of the period that has had such an impact on our planet and ourselves.

The Anthropocene era in which we now live has created a new set of existential challenges that threaten humankind’s survival on the planet. If we consider the onset of the most recent consequences of the Anthropocene to have commenced at the start of the industrial revolution, sometime in the 1760s, we can trace how this period was the genesis of a cycle of events that have resulted in the ecological crisis which we now face.

The Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain, resulted in that country controlling a global trading empire with colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and with political influence on the Indian subcontinent. The development of trade and the rise of commerce were among the major contributors to the Industrial Revolution. It marks a major turning point in history; almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. In particular, average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented and sustained growth. It is in this period, too, that we see the rise of the Industrial City, cities such as Manchester.  Every aspect of life was changed, not just the connection between home and work. Time and space were redefined, colonised as Michel Foucault might have put it.

The Industrial Revolution on Continental Europe came a little later than in Great Britain. Based on its leadership in chemical research in the universities and industrial laboratories, Germany, which was unified in 1871, became dominant in the world’s chemical industry in the late 19th century. The focus in Germany was the support of industrialisation, and so heavy lines criss-crossed the Ruhr and other industrial districts, providing good connections to the major ports of Hamburg and Bremen.

Why did the industrial revolution originate in Europe? Economic historian Joel Mokyr has argued that political fragmentation (the presence of a large number of European states) made it possible for heterodox ideas to thrive, as entrepreneurs, innovators, ideologues and heretics could easily flee to a neighbouring state in the event that any one state would try to suppress their ideas and activities. This flux is what set Europe apart from the technologically advanced, large unitary empires such as China and India, by providing, through such migration, innovation and renewal of intellect, insatiable curiosity and technos, served as, “an insurance against economic and technological stagnation”, as Mokyr puts it.

China had both a printing press and movable type, and India had similar levels of scientific and technological achievement as had Europe in 1700, yet the Industrial Revolution would occur in Europe, not China or India. In Europe, political fragmentation was coupled with “an integrated market for ideas” where Europe’s intellectuals used the lingua franca of Latin, had a shared intellectual basis in Europe’s classical heritage and the pan-European institution of the Republic of Letters.

Historian Peter Stearns has suggested that,

Europe’s Industrial Revolution stemmed in great part from Europe’s ability to draw disproportionately on world resources.”


The new world of industry was inextricably linked to colonisation, empire domination and an ideology that saw certain differences of culture as, at best, backwardness. It would be a great error, surely, to fail to take account of the immense body of philosophical work which was appearing in print.

I must leave to another occasion the combination of dispossession, conquest, exploitation, domination, and cultural extinction that made this possible. The consequences of this acquisition and exploitation of resources, of course, are now all-too apparent, as we see the ecological and social impacts of the exploitation of the world’s finite natural endowments. 

Just as there were a few enlightenment voices against empires Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottfried Herder, there were dissenting voices during this period that are usually presented as being “mostly from the arts”. During the Industrial Revolution an intellectual and artistic hostility towards the new industrialisation developed, associated with the Romantic Movement. Its critique was of what was emerging as a version of what life was to be, rather than what it might be, a life that included the search for beauty in form, and a beauty to be celebrated in nature and rural intimacies. Romanticism privileged the traditionalism of rural life and recoiled against the upheavals caused by industrialisation, urbanisation and the wretchedness of the working classes.

Its major exponents in English included the artist and poet William Blake and poets William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The movement stressed the importance of nature in art and language, in contrast to “monstrous” machines and factories; the “Dark satanic mills” of Blake's poem, And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein reflected concerns that scientific progress might be double-edged.

French Romanticism, likewise, was highly critical of industry. In a later period, it would move further from a realism of rural existence towards an anti-urban myth of an idealised rural existence, creating what Raymond Williams called a “false pastoral”. In its most reactionary form, it would be used to fuel an anti-urban ideology. As Josiah Strong put it, “God created man in a garden. The city is a result of The Fall.”

It is interesting that in the current debate on the future of the European Union, the resource of those ideas that are available in literary imagination, culture in general, are rarely articulated, even recognised, a neglect for which the Union has paid a heavy price. Ideas matter. For example, it would be impossible to teach social or political theory and its connection to economics and policy without reference to the Frankfurt School in all its periods. Its scholars have produced some of our best critiques of economy, self and society.

As Empires were formed and bolstered during the industrial revolution, Europe then witnessed the rise of nationalism. In the 19th century, a wave of romantic nationalism swept the European continent, transforming its countries and its peoples. The invention of a symbolic national identity became the concern of racial, ethnic or linguistic groups throughout Europe as they struggled to come to terms with the rise of mass politics, the decline of the traditional, and most often exploitative, social elites, popular discrimination and xenophobia. By the end of the period, the ideals of European nationalism had been exported worldwide and were now beginning to develop, and both compete and threaten, the empires ruled by colonial European nation-states.

The period that followed, from the detritus and competing of irrational empires, came the rise of extreme nationalism and fascism, and Europe’s descent into two catastrophic World Wars should alert us to the insidious dangers that can result from narrow nationalist movements, uninformed by democratic or utopian ideals, especially when there is a confluence of economic and social turmoil. 

This brief review of European history over the past two-and-a-half centuries reminds us that there was a mind of Europe before the industrial evolution, a Europe of life and the spirit of letters, of music and philosophy, before the Europe of coal and steel, a Europe that flourished without the over-zealous and insatiable exploitation of natural resources.

The Commercial Revolution that preceded the Industrial Revolution, for instance, was marked by an increase in general commerce, and in the growth of financial services such as banking, insurance, and investment. There was even a morally informed literature on the ethics of transactions and commerce.

History leads us to believe that there indeed can be a Europe beyond coal and steel as we continue in the Anthropocene era.  There can be such a change as gives us hope that there can be a green Europe that can continue to provide for its peoples without damaging irrevocably the fine ecological balance of the planet and its 7.5 billion human inhabitants and 8.7 million diverse species, a version of society combining ecology, economy and culture that is rooted in social justice, humanitarianism and ethics.

To achieve this vision of Europe, I suggest again little less than a paradigm shift in social theory, policy and practice.  In new emerging literature, consideration of a new ecological-social paradigm, based on economic heterodoxy, is available to us in the scholarly work such as of Professor Ian Gough and others, work that recognises the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as the role that unrestrained greed has played in creating the climate crisis.

In Heat, Greed and Human Need – I wish it were in the hands of all students of the social sciences – Professor Gough outlines how our alternative paradigm can be rooted in the concept of human need over insatiability. The paradigm he outlines champions principles of gender equality, income, wealth and resource redistribution, and a reconfigured social consumption and investment strategy that transfers resources and technology from developed countries to developing countries as the key means to achieve this eco-social welfare state.

The eco-social policies that underpin such an economic paradigm must concurrently pursue both equity and social justice, as well as sustainability and sufficiency goals and it requires an activist innovation state, with substantial state investment and an acceptance of greater regulation and planning. Furthermore, socio-economic measures are also required to negate any adverse impacts of the ecological transition for the poorest in society and to ameliorate, rather than threaten to deepen, growing levels of inequality. Difficult the transition may be, but it offers an approach that is garnering support as our best gesture towards intergenerational justice.

Gough’s eco-social political economy emphasises responsible economics, understanding that the concept of accelerated economic growth ad infinitum is inherently flawed. In doing this scholars such as Ian Gough are recovering a discourse and a political economy discipline that had fallen prey to an uncritical embrace of neoliberal refrains. It advocates for an economic model of pluralism which emphasises the finite nature of the Earth’s natural resources and obviously the role that rich nations must play in ameliorating the crises in which we find ourselves.

As Gough puts it himself:

“Consumption and consumption-based emissions, ignored by the green growth agenda, must be given equal priority in the rich world. (...) Issues of global equity, almost entirely absent from international climate negotiations so far, must be discussed and confronted. (…) ‘Affluence’ has a class as well as a national dimension”.

Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics, is yet another example of the works that provide a powerful conceptual framework emphasising social and ecological boundaries in humanity’s 21st-century challenge to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet.

In other words, this scholarship, it offers hope by showing us how we can, as a global community, ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer.

As to our current position and returning to the European Union and our shared future, while the EU has imposed binding emissions’ targets for 2020 and 2030 on all its Member States, we must now go further in Europe and plan for full decarbonisation of our economies by 2050, encouraging the rest of the world to follow suit, and urging in the strongest possible terms the USA to re-consider its decision to leave the international Paris Agreement on climate change, a decision which, to my mind, is inexcusable, ill-informed, profoundly myopic, and threatens future generations with catastrophic climate consequences.

In dealing with socio-economic impacts of climate change, we must be conscious of the need for a ‘just transition’ for workers and communities to ensure that we are all part of a sustainable, low-carbon economy and benefit from decent and green jobs. In Ireland and Germany, this will mean that those impacted by the closure of unsustainable carbon-intensive electricity production, for example, must be offered re-skilling opportunities to enable them to find suitable jobs in other areas, such as the green economy, or opportunities with sustainable incomes in other parts of society. Beyond that, there must be good social policies that ensure no loss of citizen participation rights.

Globalisation as we have experienced it, pursued without consideration as to social impact or consequences, I suggest, has had an accelerated negative impact on climate change: more goods being produced and consumed, more transport of goods across longer distances, shorter product obsolescence cycles, and a more consumerist and materially driven society. All of these aspects of globalisation have come at a significant cost in terms of the impact on finite natural resources and related carbon emissions.

Those who benefit from such a flawed model are certainly not the public, now or in the future. It is a minority who will benefit and who, in the defence of an insatiable, unregulated accumulation, will ignore the consequences of their model, be it in climate or social terms, a minority that often is footloose, existing beyond the reach of regulation by state or parliament. The growth of an unaccountable form of speculative capital activity can dislodge even the efforts of governments. This must change. Democracy itself requires it.  The growth of what is unaccountable is not an exercise in freedom.  It is a threat to democracy.

It is a source of encouragement that, after decades of mainstream economic commentary championing the belief in the inevitable and often extreme unregulated versions of the market, privatisation, and a smaller role for the State, we now appear to be experiencing a turning point in the economics discourse thanks to the insightful contributions of economists such as those whose works I have mentioned, such as Mariana Mazzucato and Sylvia Walby.

Mazzucato, in her books, The Entrepreneurial State and The Value of Everything, effectively rebukes the austerity-fuelled worldview that, in order to restore growth (after the 2008 financial crisis), reducing deficits by cutting public spending is fundamental, arguing instead that government spending in key investment areas such as education and research and development is a key driver of economic growth.

Thankfully Orthodox institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have slowly evolved their thinking on austerity as a strategic tool, believing that such policies can cause harm, and be self-defeating. As Keynes argued over 80 years ago, if governments cut spending during an economic slump, a short-lived recession can become a fully-fledged depression, precisely what occurred in Ireland when the economic recession of 2008 turned into an economic depression in 2009, with an economic recovery delayed until 2014.

Bulmer and Paterson, in their book, Germany and the European Union: Europe’s Reluctant Hegemon, argue that Germany – given its modern institutional contracts, export performance and influence, as well as its long record of fiscal solidity and the attractiveness of its social market economy model – had, and continues to have, the capacity to be a natural European leader on economic matters, in giving leadership in achieving a new paradigm.

Many decades before the emergence of contemporary political economists I have mentioned, the spiritual fathers of creative thinking in the public sector, Keynes and Polyani, called on policymakers not just to think in terms of economic policy exclusively about counter-cyclical spending as a way to reduce the impacts of recessions and avoid over-heating economies, but also to think strategically, to identify which investments can help shape citizens’ long-term prospects for the better.

Polyani went so far as to argue, in The Great Transformation, that far from being in the grip of any inevitabilities, free markets are indeed the products of Government interventions, outcomes of public and private actions. This astute observation has been conveniently cast aside in much of the austerity-based neoliberal commentary analysing the recent economic crisis.

The instrument that is the state must be repossessed by its citizens if we are to transform societies for the benefit of the citizenry, for the state still holds the capacity and much of the resources for democratic control of a nation’s economy and finances. This is but one form of an epistemological challenge to the neo-classical economic orthodoxy that espouses with rigidity the assumptions of rationality and individualism as the equilibrium nexus.

The role of the state, therefore, needs to be defined anew, as well as the concept of sovereignty, in such a way that it is shared, can flow for the benefit of citizens beyond borders, can – because it is a transition taking place in several countries – have a comparative and regional character, one that is exemplary to global economic systems. The concept of sovereignty, defined with responsibility beyond national borders, could be even more powerfully defined as one requiring a consciousness beyond borders in order to avoid falling into the trap of a de-peopled technocracy, or in its ignoring of human feeling. Nations, after all, live by and share sentiments of the heart as much as by what is perceived as rational. It is this sensibility and capacity that obstructs the ambition of technocracy. We must have the courage to examine the structural basis of the issues which face us.

The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the growth of nationalist and anti-immigration parties in Europe and, most recently, the ‘yellow vest’ insurrection in France have all been represented as at source a populist reaction to the rising inequality, stagnant incomes, and economic insecurity which have become the dominant trends in many industrialised countries, as has been keenly noted by John Evans in Social Europe:

“They reflect a growth of relative deprivation, where significant segments of populations feel that, whereas others have gained from economic and social change, they and their families have lost out—and they fear a future of even greater insecurity. Sharpening divisions appear after decades of the weakening of intermediary institutions, notably trade unions, whose economic role was to act as a brake on rising inequality and whose political role was to provide voice to those feeling unjustly treated and to negotiate solutions to their grievances.”

Brexit, Trump, nationalism and street violence all represent answers that we may perceive as inimical to an important question: how to re-forge agreement on redistributive justice for those who have lost out, either objectively or subjectively, from globalisation, technological innovation (including digitalisation), so-called innovation (including the casualisation of labour) or responses to climate change. How then might we regain trust? What are the consequences of a legacy of dismissed or weakened mediatory institutions?

Evans asserts that,

“a new social accord is essential, in workplaces and communities, to rebuild trust in fractured societies. It must reduce income inequality, support purchasing power and median incomes, address job quality, and counter the spatial concentration of discontent. Above all, it will entail reconstructing and reinforcing intermediary institutions, such as unions, which can provide voice and collective solutions”.


Jürgen Habermas, he indeed of the Frankfurt School, has made a seminal contribution in his move beyond the pessimism that we may have taken from Adorno, in his fine collection of essays on the EU including, The Lure of Technocracy. Habermas articulates a coherent and wide-ranging defence of the project of European unification and of possible parallel developments towards a politically integrated world and society.

In developing his key concepts of trans-nationalisation of democracy and the constitutionalisation of international law, Habermas has offered some valuable suggestions as to how we might respond to circumstances such as the current impasse in which we find ourselves.

Habermas is harshly critical of the incremental, technocratic policies advocated by several Member States that have been, and continue to be, imposed on the populations of the economically weaker, crisis-stricken Member States, and which has had the effect of undermining solidarity across the EU. He argues an alternative, that if the technocratic, austerity-centric approach is replaced by a deeper democratisation of European institutions, the EU has the possibility of fulfilling its core founding principles and ensuring that,

“rampant market capitalism can once more be brought under political control at the supranational level”.


Habermas defines a continuum in which capitalism and democracy are presented, if not at opposing ends of the spectrum, very much in conflict with each other, and he discusses with frightening accuracy the abject spectacle of a capitalist world society fragmented along national lines.

Does this mean, then, that there is emerging, or perhaps has already formed, a fundamental incompatibility of democracy and capitalism, especially a capitalism that is so heavily enmeshed with an unfettered globalisation which itself lacks legitimacy among much of the citizenry?  Unlike Wolfgang Streeck, whom I suggest articulates a more pessimistic conclusion, Habermas asserts that two interventions would improve the democratic basis of the Union: joint political framework planning, and revisions to the Lisbon Treaty to democratically legitimise the corresponding competencies:

“(…) in particular, equal involvement by Parliament and Council in the law-making process and equal accountability of the Commission to both institutions”.


This is because, as Habermas puts it,

“a generalisation of interests that cuts across national borders is only possible in a European Parliament organised by parliamentary functions”.

He argues for more profound political integration in Europe so as to create a shift in the balance between politics and the market, which is continuing to the present day in the wake of the neoliberal self-disempowerment of politics.

This disempowerment of politics manifested itself during the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent economic recessions across the EU as pressure being exerted by the financial markets on the politically fragmented national budgets, which fostered a collectivising pejorative self-perception of the populations affected by the crisis.

Habermas asserts that the response by markets, lead governments, key international organisations and the mainstream neoliberal commentariat all contributed greatly to the punitive grounds on which assistance was offered to ‘programme’ countries by,

“turning the ‘donor’ and the ‘beneficiary’ countries against each other and fomenting nationalism”.

Such an impasse repeating itself could be overcome if pro-European parties conduct joint-transnational campaigns against the falsifying representation of social questions as national questions. It also requires, he argues, “extending the monetary union into a supranational democracy” which could provide the institutional platform for reversing the neoliberal trend of recent decades. Above all, Habermas has argued (in Europe: The Faltering Project) for a policy of gradual European integration in which key decisions about Europe’s future are put in the hands of its peoples, rather than the “neoliberal orthodoxy”.

Are there any lessons we have learned from the economic crisis, the ‘self-regulating market’, and the long, devastating period of austerity imposed on millions of European citizens? I believe there are many – in politics, policymaking, academia, the commentariat, citizens at large – who have re-assessed what were sometimes strongly held beliefs, with a new-found appreciation that the state has important roles to play across all spheres of public policy, that good regulation does matter, be it in the financial, construction, or healthcare sectors – all sectors in which we in Ireland have seen the catastrophic and sometimes tragic effects of under-regulation and/or lack of enforcement.

The legitimation crisis is not confined to the European Union, or its members. The role of the State will be crucial in approaching issues such as climate change and sustainability.

There is a serious gap: what of institutions not answerable to parliament, people, or their laws. It is an issue that was addressed by the President of Greece, Prokopios Pavlopoulos, in the Aristotle Lecture in 2016. He spoke of non-state entities of international scope devoid of democratic legitimacy – so-called financial markets, credit-rating agencies – and the declining course of social welfare and the rule of law.

Looking ahead, my vision is of a Europe with excellent public services at its core. Good jobs in the public sector mean quality services for citizens. We must remember that the services the public sector delivers are not a cost to society, but an investment in our communities. This message must be taken to the heart of Europe. I suggest that what is unaccountable is speculative flows of insatiable capital, a global, unregulated, financialised version of economy that represents the greatest threat to democracy, the greatest source of an inevitable conflict, and the greatest obstacle to us achieving an end to global poverty or achieving sustainability.

In conclusion, I return to where I began, to Schiller’s An Ode to Joy. Re-reading the poem before my journey here, I was struck again by its powerful messages of freedom and solidarity. Schiller’s first stanza concludes with the powerful lines:

"Every man becomes a brother, Where thy gentle wings abide”

This expression of solidarity and tolerance reminds us forcefully of the purpose, the guiding principle of the European Union: solidarity between our nations and solidarity with others. What does solidarity demand of us now? I suggest it must be intergenerational, be defined as a multi-dimensional concept embracing ecosystem, society, culture and economy (both trade and fiscal). There must be a joint approach to bringing what is unaccountable, what is undermining public trust in democracy, what has no concept of citizens, but one of insatiable consumers.

But solidarity is not the only message we can take from Schiller’s poem, for it is a lengthy work, and only the first stanzas were put to music by Beethoven. The composer was himself, perhaps, aware that not all of the stanzas may have been appreciated by his then masters, for these stanzas reflect idealistic calls for what must be done to create a better world. 

The poem after all in its fullness appeals for the millions to strive for a better world:

“for help for the innocent, for speaking truth to friend and foe and alike, for honour only to those who merit it, and for an end to those who lie”.


It was a call in its day for rescue from tyrants, mercy to villains, and hope until the dying hours. 

The poem expresses the essence of European values – idealistic values, undoubtedly, but values which we must continue to strive to fulfil. An Ode to Joy represents values that must be given concrete, tangible reality in Europe, offered to and experienced on the European street.

Responding to the necessary transformation of this relationship between economy and society, on which I have reflected in this address, is an urgent priority, in times that are marked, in the absence of an adequate and inclusive discourse, and I believe as a consequence, by the rise of an ever-more rancorous rhetoric, one which is frequently founded in despair, alienation, anomie, exclusion, and one which produces statements from the unaccountable that seek to divide us against one another on the grounds of ethnicity, religion and nationality.

This Europe we seek must be one in which such hateful squabbles are replaced with openness, inclusivity, cohesion, solidarity, and a recognition that the shift to a new gendered ecological-social paradigm of wealth creation and distribution is pursued together and without delay, and not just for our benefit in the European Union, but for the future generations whom we would wish to inhabit a peaceful, harmonious world that is supported by a sustainable vision of economy and society, and enriched by a diversity of cultures.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.