This article is adapted from the introduction to Reclaiming the European Street: Speeches on Europe and the European Union, 2016-2020, by Michael D Higgins, published by Lilliput Press.
The streets of Europe, from Berlin to Bucharest but also including Dublin, have regularly been pounded during the ongoing pandemic by demonstrators of often very diverse kinds. While protesting is of course a legitimate act and a degree of frustration is undoubtedly understandable in this difficult time, many pandemic protests upon European streets have been fuelled by an intermingled vision that draws upon both an anti-science and an ethno-nationalist discourse, and which sees internationalism and the figure of the “globalist” – replete with implicit antisemitic connotations – as its enemy.
Brexit, and the mainstreaming of neo-nationalism it has helped to unleash in both Britain and indeed Ireland, has taught us that the multilateral values taken for granted in Western Europe since 1945, and institutionalised later in the European Union, are not necessarily written in stone.
There is a need to re-engage with the European street more thoroughly, to argue more stringently for the merits of effective transnational action, most especially in relation to climate change which, post-pandemic, will be the all-encompassing crisis that the world needs to engage with to ensure its survival. In Europe it means to foster (or even begin) an inclusive debate with citizens in all member states about the future of the only existing structure which permits this, the European Union.
There is also, indeed, a different approach. One of the clearest examples of this essentially pro-European Union, yet also EU-critical viewpoint that challenges the narrow forms of ethno-nationalism, is presented in a forthcoming collection of speeches by the president of Ireland. President Michael D Higgins’s collected European speeches, entitled Reclaiming the European Street, is an effort to broaden the debate, to include philosophical, ethical and cultural dimensions and to go beyond the pragmatic economic management ethos which generally dominates contemporary Irish writing on Europe.
There is indeed a generally overlooked Irish tradition of writing on Europe and the possible forms of its political organisation. In the 1940s Seán O’Faolain and Hubert Butler argued in favour of a future European federation that would enhance Irish nationhood as Ireland could engage with other small nations. Social democrat and constitutional Irish nationalist John Hume in the 1980s saw the island of Ireland within a realigned European federal space: a new Europe of the Regions. Drawing on anarchist thought and postmodern theory, the philosopher Richard Kearney also looked to reimagine European space in the 1980s and early 1990s, and how Ireland might fit within it. Examining Irish state discourse during the first thirty years of EEC/EU membership, Katy Hayward, in her book Irish Nationalism and European Integration, contends that a “symbiotic relationship between national and supra-national ideologies” has existed; the language of Europe has often simply been incorporated into the language of constitutional Irish nationalism, she argues. In this regard, Ireland is in no way unique among the member states of the EU.
Michael D Higgins’s writings on Europe largely exist outside of these nationalistic paradigms. The wider intellectual context within which to situate his writing and speeches on Europe – based as it is upon a transnational vision beyond capitalism – is actually within a left-oriented Social Europeanism, which has had, otherwise, very little purchase in Ireland. The low electoral standing of Higgins’s political home, the Labour Party, has contributed to this lacuna. The ideational core of this position may be found within the writings of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Habermas’s Social Europeanism is based upon a number of consistent ideas: the need for post-nationalist government beyond the nation state, secularisation, a belief in the management potential of the state in economics and the necessity for a strong solidarity orientation within society. The most significant argument, for Habermas, in favour of greater European integration is the fact that an unwieldy, globalised form of capitalism, which can easily cross borders, requires an effective transnational institution which also functions beyond the confines of the nation state to act as a controlling mechanism.
The vision of the European Union developed by President Higgins is that of a social Europe founded upon values; an ethical union, which places citizens and workers – and specifically the materially disadvantaged – at the centre of the EU’s concern. A Union that engages directly with the social background and concerns of many of the demonstrators on the European streets. It is a vision that is critical of globalised, financialised capitalism and neo-liberalism, which, his speeches make clear, have also been adopted by EU policymakers and integrated into European treaties, such as that of Lisbon. But rather than arriving at a Eurosceptic conclusion, the speeches return to the founding documents of the European integration project, the Ventotene Manifesto of Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, and the Treaty of Rome. Higgins’s vision of a sustainable economy echoes the objective of the European Green Deal, arguing for the embrace of a new eco-social paradigm.
Irish discourses concerning the European Union are often characterised by their complete exclusion of the cultural dimension. President Higgins regularly makes a point of including and quoting European writers and philosophers, from Aristotle to Friedrich Schiller and Czesław Miłosz, aiming to integrate the imagination and utopian dimensions integral to art and literature into the European discourse. This not only broadens the debate and makes it more future-oriented rather than pragmatic and present-focused, it also adds colour and vibrancy to an EU discussion that has tended towards the stale and dreary, where legal, economic and often distant political aspects predominate. It also opens up new educational potentialities.
In his preface, President Higgins argues that Covid-19 has reminded us “through tragedy and suffering that we have a shared, globalised vulnerability that is common to all humanity, one that knows no borders”. Our continent must not fall into narrow competing nationalisms, not least a new kind of “vaccine nationalism”. The European Union remains essentially a peace project, aimed at eliminating the basis for war, which arose from the European history of mass murder. Our emphasis needs to be on cooperation, not competition, in this time of intense crisis.
Joachim Fischer and Fergal Lenehan are the joint editors of Reclaiming the European Street. This article is adapted from their introduction. The image, from bloomberg.com, shows German demonstrators protesting against what they call ‘the pandemic of lies’.