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Michael D. Higgins

Michael D. Higgins

Michael D. Higgins

ONE of the less noted aspects of President Higgins's – some would say – radical speech to the echo chamber that is the European Parliament was that it was not reported at all by the mainstream media in Europe, insofar as can be established.

The speech was not necessarily aimed at Europe, of course, but, in my opinion, at the diplomatic undercurrent in socialist France, and indeed, intended or otherwise, at what might be called the dissident TDs and senators of Labour back home, with whom he has struck a chord.

We can suspect it was primarily aimed at France from his citation of the work of what he called the "distinguished scholar of the Sorbonne", Marguerite Maria Dubois, widely respected for her authorship of the definitive Larousse's French-English dictionary.

She also broke ground in research on the genesis of the European Union, specifically a meeting which took place in France in July 1950, which was attended by the man who would become Pope John XXIII.

"No more than some meetings of the contemporary period, its real agenda was not as publicly indicated," Mr Higgins said of that meeting – a conspiratorial moment which marked his tone.

The citizens of Europe, he said, are "threatened" – a strong word – with an "increasing deficit of democratic accountability in some decision-making of an economic and fiscal kind".

Intractable as ever, the problem is Germany, at the same time both too strong and too weak, or at least too disengaged.

The past six years of austerity have coincided with a remarkable increase in the influence of Germany, which has been reluctant to empower the European Central Bank (ECB) to embark on a bond-buying spree that the countries of the bankrupt periphery so crave.

That is not to suggest that Mr Higgins is a Germanphobe – far from it – but in this "European Year of Citizens", his point was well made: across the EU, there are now 26 million people without work, 5.7 million of them young, and 115 million in or at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

"We cannot allow this to continue," Mr Higgins said.

Insofar as could be established, his views were not reported by Der Spiegel, the German weekly news magazine which is one of the largest publications of its kind in Europe, with a weekly circulation of more than one million.

Among other things, Der Spiegel was last week more pre-occupied by an ECB study which showed the meridian net wealth of the average German household to be in last place in Europe.

That position is, no doubt, a legacy of two world wars, which saw the wealth of the German middle class destroyed and the savings of an entire generation wiped out, events which, shall we say, have reinforced a certain behavioural divide with most of the rest of Europe.

The German Taypayers' Association, meanwhile, estimates that Germany has already guaranteed €100bn in loans and could be on the hook for more than €500bn if more countries in the European Union request aid.

According to Der Spiegel: "It would be more sensible – and fairer – for the crisis-ridden countries to exercise their own power to reduce their debts, namely by reaching for the assets of their citizens more than they have so far."

The argument fails to take account of the structural fault in the rush to design monetary union, to supersede the Deutschmark, which flooded all member states with cheap credit and fuelled an asset bubble in Ireland and Spain in particular.

Nonetheless, victimhood is where the debate is at right now in Germany.

Brendan Simms, history professor at Cambridge University, recently said that, in the course of history, nations have always rallied together in the face of matters of life and death – not poverty.

It is little surprise then that Mr Higgins's speech has failed to garner much, if any, traction in Germany, or throughout Europe, not even in France, where the body politic remains mired in political scandal.

That said, there is evidence of the stirrings of change at a political level where it matters, close to one half of the hegemony that is Germany and France.

Three cabinet members in Paris last week launched a joint push for an end to austerity, warning that cuts have become self-defeating and are driving the country into a recessionary spiral.

"It's high time we opened a debate on these policies, which are leading the EU towards a debacle," the industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, said. "What is the point of fiscal consolidation if the economy goes to the dogs."

In essence, that was also the theme of Mr Higgins's speech, which, as I have said, has also found a resonance on the backbenches of Labour, in the Dail and in the Senate, the future of which is also under threat.

If the Senate is to be abolished, then another layer of the accountability of which the President spoke – this is something that also concerns the judiciary – will be stripped away.

"Parliaments do matter and must continue to matter," Mr Higgins said, and – here I paraphrase – if national parliaments were to lose the capacity to deliver accountability, where else might it be found?

He strongly argued that there was no alternative to meet the requirements of a deliberative democracy: "They, the citizens, place their trust in parliament when they vote and they rightly have expectations of parliaments responding to their needs."

Our most recent opinion poll has shown 75 per cent of the people to be "dissatisfied", to use the muted term of polling firms, with a Government in which it had placed its trust just over two years ago, which had promised Labour's way, not Frankfurt's way.

More than that, most significantly, 35 per cent do not trust, if you like, mainstream political parties anymore, and, a further 18 per cent intend to vote for independent or non-party candidates.

Therefore, almost half of the electorate is disillusioned with the mainstream.

It was refreshing to hear Mr Higgins address this issue, and to go further, to speak of the risk of an economic crisis leading to a "crisis of legitimacy" for the EU.

It was also refreshing to hear him remember the "energetic pursuit of new thought" that characterised Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Or more specifically, to acknowledge "some powerful examples of dissident and radical thought" who, in their time, had "identified the flaw in the Enlightenment thinking that supported empire", courageously challenged through books, pamphlets and public expressions.

"We need new substantive pluralist political economic models and an emancipatory discourse to deliver them," he said.

His use of the term "emancipatory discourse" was evocative of the tenet of freedom of speech, which many have noted is also under threat here in this age of a crippling crisis of trust.

It remains to be seen whether the President's words will have an effect on those dissident Labour TDs and senators, growing in number, who, for example, must now monitor the new Personal Insolvency legislation which they have voted to introduce.

In Europe last week, Mr Higgins also said: "The economic narrative of recent years has been driven by dry technical concerns; for example, by calculations that are abstract and not drawn from real problems, geared primarily by a consideration of the impact of such measures on speculative markets, rather than driven by sufficient compassion and empathy with the predicament of European citizens."

Critics of the new solvency laws, which will see many entrenched in austerity for another half decade, could argue that such words ring hollow from the man who has signed into law, without so much as a murmur, legislation which leaves final authority to the banks.

It was a radical speech, then, but with a small 'r', which is perhaps just as well; but that is not to say his words were any less timely or relevant.

The constraints of the Constitution still apply to him, of course, a constitution which is currently prodded and poked in a manner which seems to be not entirely transparent at Dublin Castle, where the convention will shortly turn to the future of the Senate.

Whether any of this matters on a continent which only rallies in the face of matters of life and death – not poverty – is a moot point.

As Prof Simms elaborated in Der Spiegel, a matter of life and death, such as a shock from outside, could take many shapes – a terrorist act, a Russian threat in the Baltics or a conflict over the supply of energy.

His view places neatly in context a comment, quoted here before, by the foreign minister of Poland in a speech in Berlin in 2011: "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity."

Irish Independent