The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins has recently published a collection of his speeches entitled “Reclaiming the European Street, Speeches on Europe and the European Union 2016-20” . The publisher is the Lilliput Press
Drawing on a lifetime of reading in sociology, philosophy and history, President Higgins makes his case for European unity and for Ireland’s participation in it.
As might be expected of a man of the Left, he is critical of capitalism, and sees state or collective action, whether at national or EU level, as capable of playing a bigger role in helping the people of Europe to flourish and achieve their potential.
For similar reasons he is against what he calls “austerity”, but does not address what is to be done if the interest rate at which a state can borrow becomes unaffordable, which is where Ireland found itself in 2010.
No politician chooses austerity for its own sake! But sometimes it is necessary to preserve a country’s freedom of action.
AN INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY
Michael D Higgins was not always enthusiastic about European integration.
In their introduction to this collection of speeches, his editors, Joachim Fischer and Fergal Lenehan , point out that he campaigned against the Single European Act of 1987, and also campaigned against the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.
These two Treaties provided the legal basis for the EU’s biggest achievements, namely the creation of Single Market, and the establishment of the Economic and Monetary Union and the Euro. They also enhanced the role of the democratically elected European Parliament.
It would have been interesting if the editors of this collection could have elaborated upon President Higgins’ intellectual journey on European integration, from the sceptical positions he adopted in 1987 and 1992, to the more favourable ones he adopts today. President Higgins journey is one many left leaning politicians have followed and it would have been interesting to tease this out.
In an attempt to understand the evolution of his thinking, I reread some of the speeches he made in the Senate and Dail in the 1980’s on moves to closer EU integration.
One major concern he had then was the effect of the new EU Treaties on Irish neutrality. He opposed confining Irish neutrality merely to military matters. He believed Ireland should be politically as well as militarily neutral. Such a position is not sustainable nowadays. The EU is now adopting common positions on geopolitical issues, on a daily basis. As an EU member, Ireland is not politically neutral. States are now so interdependent, that complete political neutrality is almost impossible. The recent cyber attack shows how we need common defences that work.
Michael D Higgins was also sceptical about the EU Single Market, and feared it would lead to job losses. These fears have not been realised. The contrary proved to be the case. Employment here is much higher than it as in 1992 when the Single Market was inaugurated.
A clue to the influences that led Michael D Higgins, over the past 20 years, to a more favourable view of European integration may be found in the careers of the people he quotes in the speeches in this book.
The most frequently cited is Altiero Spinelli, author of the European Parliament’s 1984 Spinelli Report, which was the precursor of the Single European Act of 1987.
Spinelli had been a member of the Communist resistance to Italian Fascism and was imprisoned on the island of Ventotene. There he co wrote the Ventotene Manifesto.
This Manifesto is mentioned dozens of times in this book.
Learning from the lesson of the World War, then in progress, the Ventotene Manifesto called in 1941 for a wholly new Europe. It sought
“the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national sovereign states”
because it was
“impossible to maintain a balance of power between European states”.
It argued for a revolution, with a goal of the emancipation of the working classes. But, interestingly, it added that
“the working classes must not be left at the mercy of the economic power of monopolistic trade unions”.
This may have been a reference to the corporatist trade unions set up under Fascism, but it could be seen as a general argument against the closed shop.
After the War, Spinelli pursued the goal of European Unity, and supported the unsuccessful attempt to set up a European Defence community in 1954.
From 1970 to 1976, he was a member of the European Commission, and came to Dublin in 1972 when Ireland was debating whether to join the then European Common Market. On that occasion he met Michael D Higgins, and sought to persuade the Irish Labour Party that support for European Unity should not be left to “conservative” parties.
Spinelli did not achieve his goal at first attempt, as Labour opposed Ireland joining the Common Market at that time. But Spinelli left a lasting impression on Michael D Higgins, which is evidenced by the contents of Michael D Higgins speeches over 40 years later.
WHAT ECONOMIC ROLE FOR THE STATE?
Another Italian intellectual influence, acknowledged by the author, is the economist Mariana Mazzucato.
She argues for an “Entrepreneurial State”, claiming that many important technological advances originate in decisions by the public sector, and that economic development cannot be left to the private sector. I agree with this. Indeed free markets themselves can only exist if a state in there to make and enforce rules.
But when the state itself gets involved directly in managing businesses, it can be slow to adapt to new realities, because of political pressures, including from monopolistic trade unions, of the kind identified in the Ventotene Manifesto.
Looking to the future, President Higgins says
“EU Institutions must be adequate and sufficient to enable the restoration and protection of social cohesion”.
This asks too much of the EU.
The EU is only allowed to spend 1% of EU GDP, and there is no sign that limit will be raised soon. So restoring social cohesion must primarily be the responsibility of member states, which spend 40% of GDP or more, and have the power to levy taxes, in a way that the EU cannot do.
It is interesting to note that, on the eve of the pandemic, the Economic and Social Research Institute found that income inequality in Ireland was at its lowest level for many years, and 16% below the level it was in 1987. It is notable that this report got little or no coverage in the Irish media.
The President is right when he condemns the
“uncritical pursuit of ever accelerating growth without consideration of the consequences”.
That must change if we are to meet the challenge of climate change.
Lower economic growth will mean less tax revenue and less money to spend. Green living will mean more austere living, and a more limited range of choices.
It is to be hoped that we will take responsibility for this ourselves as a people, and avoid blaming it on external agencies like the EU.
The issues raised in this book are important, and they reflect a serious and engaged mind.