‘Ireland and France in the Post-Covid European Future’ Speech by President Higgins on the occasion of the Official Visit of President Macron
Thursday, 26th August, 2021
Your Excellency, Mr Macron, President of the French Republic,
Fíor chaoin fáilte romhat agus roimh do chomhghleacaithe, ina measc mo sheanchara Jean-Yves Le Drian. [A very warm welcome to you and your colleagues, among them my old friend Jean-Yves Le Drian.]
It has been a special pleasure for Sabina and myself to welcome you, your Ministers and your Delegation, including your Ambassador, back to Áras an Uachtaráin this evening.
Let me welcome too An Taoiseach also, along with Ministers present today. Fairim fíor chaoin fáilte romhaibh uilig. [A very warm welcome to you all]
I am very pleased to hear that substantive and positive discussions took place this afternoon at Government level, followed by the publication of the Joint Irish-French Strategy today.
President, I appreciated greatly our own bilateral meeting this morning at which we had the opportunity to exchange views on several significant issues, and I am sure I speak for us both, when I say that we welcomed especially our opportunity to engage afterwards with a number of thinkers on the topic of the Future of Europe and the possibilities and challenges of the post-pandemic world.
France and Ireland
Mr. President, in a widely commented speech three years ago on the subject of the Francophonie, you observed that the special dignity of language means being conscious of it in such a way that it is not reduced to a communication tool, but rather recognising that it is the very substance of what makes us human.
We in Ireland understand this well. We have in daily use two languages, of which English is by far the dominant one. However, in the special sense you spoke of, Mr President, we affirm in our Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, that the Irish language – the native language of this island – is a fundamental source and element in our culture. Just as Breton is an important part of French culture – and a link to our own – so we, in France and in Ireland, share an appreciation of the contribution language, in its diversity, makes to a living culture, an appreciation that must surely be at the heart of our common European future.
It is now more than half a century since President Charles De Gaulle famously visited Counties Kerry, Galway and Tipperary. Just a short distance from where we are now, President De Gaulle and President De Valera walked in the gardens outside this room, and reflected on the many challenges of their time. Then, as now, they were undoubtedly drawn together by the deep and warm friendship between France and Ireland, a friendship reflected, inter alia, in the migratory patterns which have left a deep footprint on our shared social and economic interactions.
However, and importantly, our French connection is rooted also in the revolutionary history of our two independent Republics. Our French connection is prominent in those most generous and inclusive versions of our struggle for independence. When French ideas were a source of our inspiration for us, they were also the basis for a suspicion, on the part of our oppressors, one that informed the coercion and suppression directed at our struggle. Our Republics are steadfast and loyal partners in today’s European Union, as well as sharing support for multilateralism in the UN and our wider international community.
One striking aspect of our historic relationship was the creation of a scholarly link through the establishment of the Irish College in Paris in 1578 as a Catholic school to train Irish students. Thus, the intellectual discourse which we share today has roots in a long and deep engagement between our scholars, with our universities, and a shared experience of cultural life.
When I served in Government, as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in 1992, a very successful project was delivered in France (L’Imaginaire Irlandais), arising out of a conversation between my predecessor Mary Robinson and President Mitterrand. Perhaps now, almost 30 years later, may I suggest that fresh opportunities may be found to advance new partnerships in our cultural lives. I would welcome such an initiative as might realise, among others, Paul Ricoeur’s vision for a new European ethos, an imaginative approach to a shared European future, a vision such as informed, too, the Ventotene Manifesto of Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi.
Still today, the inspiration provided by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen retains the power to influence our hopes and our practices. It goes to the core of the subsequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN in 1948, that continues to guide us in both our national and international commitments.
The 'journey to France' is a regular part of Irish political and cultural endeavour. Many notable figures in Irish history spent time in France studying or working, including Daniel O’Connell, known as ‘the Liberator’, who became the first great 19th-century Irish nationalist leader having spent his early schooldays at the Irish college in Douai and St Omer in northern France. President De Gaulle recognised ‘The Liberator’ when he signed the Visitors’ Book at O’Connell’s home in Derrynane in 1969. Then, too, many of our own greatest artists – perhaps Samuel Beckett, Eileen Gray and James Joyce being among the most famous examples – called France their home for at least part of their creative lives, and in Beckett’s case serving in the French Resistance before the completion of many of his finest works.
On the path to our independence, France and 'French ideas' were invoked as inspiration and source of strength by Irish leaders who sought to achieve independence. The support of France for Ireland during the Williamite-Jacobite War in the 17th century is one part of that story. It was followed a full century later again, in 1798, when, inspired by the French Revolution, the Society of United Irishmen instigated an uprising against British rule in Ireland led by Irish revolutionary fighter Wolfe Tone. France’s support of the Irish Rebellion was important, and would prove to be a source of inspiration to those involved in the independence struggle in this country over the course of the succeeding century, and beyond.
One of our most gifted critical minds, the late Seamus Deane, has written that, during his time in France, Tone recognised how, in both France and Ireland, the relationship between the “nation” and the “people” was being reconfigured.
Deane notes also that Tone, writing from France just before he set off on his final journey to Ireland with the French fleet, declared: “I think that I may […] see a new order of things in Europe. [...] The ancient system of tyranny must fall”.
In more recent times, both France and Ireland have shared the experience of being active members of the Council of Europe, European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. With Ireland’s recent taking of a seat on the United Nations Security Council, France and Ireland can now work together as partners on this important multilateral forum. As they were doing today on the discussion on Ethiopia. It is through these international fora that we can best advance critical issues of mutual interest, drawing on our shared European values.
The Future of Europe
May I suggest that now is a good time to make a profound and perhaps cathartic reflection on our possible future, shared European values. In doing so, if we are to reflect with a needed authenticity, I believe we should pause to consider what we mean, what it is that we wish for, what we are willing to share, when we speak of a European Union. Are we, for example, speaking of a social Europe, or more narrowly of an economic and monetary union? What does it mean to those of us living now, and to future generations, 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? Do we share such a concept of a social union that might be constructed within an ecological responsibility in a time of crisis? How open are we to change?
We have some advantages, for despite the many centuries of our past that were tarnished by war and suffering, Europe retains many historic achievements, and the European Union constitutes – through its legacy of thought, its commitment to intellectual discourse, its openness to reflect, critique, acknowledge the price paid by generations in their efforts to undo the trammels of Empire – itself an unfinished project.
The European Union has a unique opportunity, and bears 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. Such values are neither abstract, optional, nor are they confined by borders.
In offering a vision for Europe’s future and the cultivation of what might constitute a ‘mind of Europe’, we must re-engage with the street and do so with authenticity and courage if we are to regain trust. We are challenged to advance a critical debate on the future of European values. Within this vision, the European respect for culture, for example, in all its broad diversity as to source and expression, must be at the heart of our public discourse and our reclaimed public space on the European street. We cannot allow any overt or hollow rhetoric to defeat our normative aspirations and actions.
The future shape of the European Union has become a matter of such contestation in the shadow of the ‘Great Recession’, Brexit, Covid, the migration crisis, the impact of an unregulated technology with its concentrations of ownership outside a model of accountable social responsibility, and other social forces which have given rise to so much doubt and erosion of trust across Europe.
We Europeans are challenged to define, through deliberation, the outlines of the Union that we now seek. Such deliberation must be in the context of a sufficiently wide debate, including on the forms of political economy, that can address new and existing internal and external challenges.
The great French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, with whom I know President Macron worked closely in the past, and to whom I often turn for inspiration in my own work as President, has written so convincingly on the importance of ‘narrative hospitality’, of openness to ‘the Other’, of inclusivity being placed centre-stage in any discourse on reconciling our past and agreeing a possible, shared future. This is so important in the context of the reimagined Europe we attempt to rebuild following the Covid pandemic with all its devastating personal, social, cultural and economic consequences.
The European Union’s culture of accommodation, respect and compromise has been with us so long that perhaps we are now in danger of taking its process for granted. On a continent which historically has been the scene and source of so much hubris and abuse of power, be it invoked, inherited, asserted, an exercise of power that has resulted in such grave suffering, we ignore such tools of respectful discourse at our peril. The decision-making process of the European Union, while complex, imperfect, painstaking, perhaps a source of frustration, yet remains a cultural space of value, one that is underpinned by diplomacy, rationality and the rule of law as a means of doing business.
Our first obligation to Europe must be, through the widest participation and discussion, to come to understand and affirm the nature of the European Project, the form and aspirations for the Union we seek to make, and to explain not only what is, but how it might be better, even emancipatory, for our citizens. While reform should be our driving aim, if we fail to recognise what is failing, or the full extent of reform required, any reform will likely fail, or at best be temporary.
We must understand Europe in all its diversity and complexity if we are to preserve and strengthen it. 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 and their sense of place. Europe is dynamic and evolving. It must be possible to be a moral citizen in experiencing the local with respect as well as being a European Union Member. Any contradiction is not necessary. Such a suggested contradiction simply reflects a failure of mind and will.
We must comprehend, too, the diverse roots of the European Project if we are to move forward successfully with a purposeful Union. One of the most morally compelling visions of European internationalism, considered a founding document of European integration, emerged from the Italian resistance movement. It was composed in 1941 on the island of Ventotene by Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and their colleagues in the European Federalist Movement. The Ventotene Manifesto spoke of human needs and purpose beyond borders. It had the creation of an internationally recognised state as its main purpose, and then, national independence having been won, it suggested how this achievement could be used as an instrument for achieving international unity of values and purpose and the prevention of future wars.
That is not to say that the European Union did not have other important roots reflecting alternative political persuasions, but it is crucial that we reject simplistic, erroneous conceptions of the European Project as being merely about capital, markets and free trade. The Ventotene Manifesto has I feel not been given the significance it had as a moral, political and intellectually sourced vision.
Solidarity was in the DNA of each and all of the Founders of the European Union, whatever their disposition or emphasis, so when our solidarity is inadequate, we call into question our very concept of a shared Union. Internal and external solidarity are necessarily linked. The expression of solidarity and tolerance reminds us forcefully of the purpose and guiding principle of the European Union: solidarity between our nations and solidarity offered to others.
What does solidarity demand of us now? I suggest that, if it is to be meaningful in addressing other present challenges, it must be intergenerational in its inclusiveness, be defined as a multi-dimensional concept embracing ecosystem, society, culture and economy. It must include a joint approach to acknowledging and tackling what is unaccountable, what is undermining public trust in democracy, what may threaten to replace a concept of European citizens seeking a peaceful future, with one of insatiable demands as consumers.
One of the great tasks of the next decade will be to achieve cohesion within and between the communities of our common European home, by rebuilding our capacity and willingness to work together in leading fulfilling lives in all spheres of human activity. In doing so, the Union can play the full leadership role of which it is capable in confronting these global challenges which are common to all humanity: ensuring just, sustainable development, mitigating climate change, and vindicating the human rights of those fleeing war, persecution and famine. Leadership is necessary. We cannot wait until these issues are perceived as politically opportune in any electoral sense.
We are at a time of crisis. We live in a world broken by conflict and neglected climate justice issues. The latest United Nations Global Trends Report informs us that 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced globally at the end of 2020, a 4 percent increase on 2019. While Europe has, for many decades, been a leader in championing the rights of refugees, the rise of populist political ideologies that are founded on fear, division and exclusion – with the excluded being abandoned to become the prey of xenophobes and racists – presents a major threat to European solidarity. I so agree, too, with the words of High Commissioner Grandi when he suggests that only if Europe is strong and unified will Europeans successfully manage refugee and migration issues in a principled, practical and effective manner.
The word “principled” is the most challenging word in his remarks. We must do better. There can be a greater commitment in our new departure.
For it is clear on these issues that if we enable and promote a reciprocal sharing of cultures and ideas, as well as forging multiple symbioses, the cultural diversity that follows will bring with it innovation, opportunity, dynamism and a creative energy that can enrich our society and cross borders.
It is past time that European peoples transacted with authenticity their past, present and possible futures with the peoples of our most populated neighbour, Africa. We Europeans must move beyond our prescriptive approach to dealing with African matters, an approach that has resulted too often in programmes of aid in the past that were externally imposed, conceived and applied without proper understanding of the crucial need for African agency; programmes that were delivered without due cognisance of history and the context of Africa as a diverse, dynamic continent.
I so agree with Carlos Lopes, High Representative of the Commission of the African Union, that a paradigm shift in African Union-European Union relations is now urgently needed. Our challenge as Europeans must, therefore, be to forge such a new relationship with Africa, founded on real multilateralism and solidarity, as can enable us to be ethical partners in the necessary structural change that can deliver universal basic services and transformational structures in Africa, and an enduring, ecologically balanced future for the continent of the young, on which those of us who believe in global social justice and solidarity place so much collective hope.
The latest United Nations IPCC Report informs us starkly that major climate changes are now inevitable and irreversible: climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying”. We urgently require to forge new connections between ecology, economics and ethics, not only for the sake of the European Union, but for that of our shared, fragile planet and its global citizens. Let us acknowledge that those who made the least contribution to our ecological crisis are paying the highest price. The most powerful in economic terms cannot, with any credibility, continue to be the slowest to change.
To achieve an inspiring vision of Europe necessitates a paradigm shift to an ecological-social steady state, a heterodox economic model, such as that proposed by a welcome new wave of economic theorists, such as Professor Ian Gough, which is one that recognises the limits of the world’s natural resources. This model is already finding its way to the European street. Organisations such as the OECD have been highlighting its virtues. EU Governments can respond by engaging with this discourse and by implementing policies that can deliver the necessary transformations it advocates, thus achieving a recovery of trust by reconciling words and actions, show what may be achieved, and thus delivering a convincing authenticity of policy.
Covid has demonstrated how the great challenges we now face must draw forth a shared perspective because of our interdependency. They are shared challenges requiring a shared response that go 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, in defence of narrow, insidious interests that facilitate a deepening of inequality. Neither in international relations can we accept the rhetoric or renewed preparations for war between the most heavily armed as a substitute for engaged diplomacy.
There is evidence, albeit forced by interacting contemporary crises, of an emerging new consciousness at local and global level. There now exists an opportunity for the international community to address the burden of debt; an historic opportunity for the world to harness the groundswell of compassion so visible around us to build a sustainable and more responsible shared world; to offer solidarity to the poorest nations of the globe, which includes ensuring universal access to Covid vaccines immediately, the sharing of technology such as is sought by the W.H.O.
There was after all a mind of Europe long before the industrial revolution. Yes, it had its abuses of power, but it had too its capacity for change. It was a Europe of vitality and the spirit of letters, of music and philosophy, a Europe that flourished without the insatiable exploitation of natural resources and consumption. There can be a European mind beyond the legacies of coal and steel, a green Europe that can continue to provide for its peoples without leading us to the precipice of ecological ruination.
A Europe with excellent public services at its core is a vision for which we must strive. For example, good jobs in the public sector mean quality services for citizens, services that are not a cost to society, but an investment in cohesion in our communities. This message must be taken to the heart of Europe.
The instrument that is the State must also be re-defined, reconstituted in terms of itself and its partnerships by its citizens if societies are to be transformed for the benefit of all of the citizenry.
This Europe we seek must be one in which hateful squabbles are replaced with openness, inclusivity, cohesion, solidarity – not just for our benefit in the European Union, but for future generations whom we would wish to inhabit a peaceful, harmonious world that is supported by a sustainable vision of economy and society, enriched by a diversity of cultures.
As leaders in the European Union, we must take instruction from the tragedy that is the Covid pandemic in terms of our shared preparedness. We must build on the solidarity that has been demonstrated by the peoples of the Union, reflecting their response in how we act as Member States. Similar to the financial crash of over a decade ago, the pandemic has exposed weaknesses within the Union, demonstrating the inherent dangers of a policy of retreating behind borders - a zero-sum game.
Let us now take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as we rebuild our societies and economies in the aftermath of Covid, to build on the vision of Altiero Spinelli, Robert Schumann, Jean Monnet and others, to construct a European Union that speaks to its citizens in their entirety, in the fullness of their possibilities, in their glorious diversity of origin and expression, a Union resolute in its vindication and protection of the most vulnerable, a Union that will offer a European-led transition to a just and sustainable future.
May I now invite you all, distinguished guests, to join me in a toast:
- To the good health of the President of the Republic of France
- To the happiness and prosperity of the people of the Republic of France
- And to the enduring friendship between our two nations!
Á votre Santé!
Go raibh míle maith agaibh!