While European authorities debated policies concerning the refugee crisis that has sent some 500,000 people seeking asylum in the European Union, Irish President Michael Higgins urged Europeans to rediscover their sense of solidarity in dealing with the issue and to apply that solidarity to EU-wide challenges. Higgins also said the EU needs to extend rights to all refugees in a speech at New York University Law School Monday that advocated for social and economic equality.
Higgins' remarks came as the European Union continued to see fracturing amid the ongoing refugee crisis, as well as lingering obstacles to recovery from the 2008 recession that sank the euro and sent unemployment skyrocketing. The Irish president, who has long spoken of his dedication to the European project, emphasized the need to put aside differences to resolve several continentwide crises and restore faith in the EU during his forward-looking address.
Higgins criticized many aspects of the EU response to both humanitarian and economic crises, though his address was not without optimism, noting "crisis can provide a new strategic direction for renewal, and for pluralist scholarship.”
The former president of the Labor Party in Ireland has a history of dedication to social justice issues, including the refugee crisis. He also has advocated passionately to end homelessness in Ireland and to combat world hunger. Most recently in an address at the U.N. during the weekend, he spoke about the need for leaders worldwide to make gender equality a top priority.
The Irish president also urged European authorities to find a better policy on the ongoing refugee crisis, at a U.N. summit Saturday. “The taoiseach and other spokespersons as well have fairly consistently said that we are a people who are a migrant people ourselves," Higgins said Saturday, adding, "We have in the near history the experience of so many of our people leaving in fragile crafts and crossing the Atlantic and losing their lives."
During his speech Monday, the Irish head of state reiterated the need to form a united response to the crisis, while recognizing the efforts of European citizens that have “for the most part, demonstrated a deeply humanitarian instinct.”
To move ahead on the refugee issue, he said Europeans "have to get to a point where people are moving across a space with rights,” adding, “You need to give a full equivalence of rights to people who arrive.”
Higgins’ remarks were not focused exclusively on the refugee crisis. He spoke about the need for European solidarity more broadly, particularly when it comes to social and economic justice. On the need to shift discourse from a theoretical framework to a human one, Higgins said, “Doctrines can disguise reality and contribute to the alienation of people.”
Higgins noted specifically the plight of young Europeans, as a subset of alienated people, citing a disproportionate number of EU youth that are unemployed. “Within society, hope has eroded among the young, whose expectations were formed in a debt-expanded, financialized economy,” Higgins said, noting 20.4 percent EU-wide youth unemployment, with rates at nearly 50 percent in debt-ridden countries such as Greece and Spain.
Looking to the future, the Irish head of state insisted on the need for European powers, not national ones alone to address issues such as youth unemployment and economic inequality, saying, “The European Union has the capacity within it I believe to achieve a fairer, more inclusive union.”
“Europe must regain the power to inspire, and to offer hope,” said Higgins.