r google-plus facebook twitter linkedin2 nujij Monitor Nieuwsbrief pdclogo man met tas twitter boek

Lecture by Mary Robinson

President of Ireland (1991 - 1997)




The need for self-reflection

I am deeply conscious of the honour of delivering this fifth Europe Lecture, and that I do so on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome. If we were thinking of that anniver­sary in human terms, it could coincide with a mid-life crisis. And given the organic development of the European project, perhaps we should recognise the potential analogy. A key element, after all, has been that capacity for organic growth. And yet, having the capacity for such development does not guarantee that it will happen or that it will continue. There must be a dynamic which triggers it from with­in. So let us pause and reflect on this institutional Europe which, I believe, is entering the most critical and challenging phase in its development.

Why, when he addressed the European Parliament in 1994 and referred to the Maastricht Treaty, did President Vaclav Havel conclude: ‘My reason had been spoken to but not my heart?’ I think I know why, or at least, some of the reasons why. I listened to his eloquent plea during a visit to Dublin last June. ‘I find’, he said, ‘that as Europe goes ahead with its unification it has to rediscover, con­sciously embrace and in some way articulate its soul or its spirit, its underlying idea, its purpose and its inner ethos. It has to look itself in the face, appreciate anew the strength of all its good traditions and realise the dangers of all the bad ones; it has to perform a true self-­reflection and, finally, ascertain what its mission is’.

It is this challenge I want to take up. What better place to take it up than in one of the founding member states. The Netherlands, while being one of the smaller states with which Ireland easily identifies, is also the state which has the responsibility of the Presidency at such a pivotal time. Understandably, because of the issues to be resolved in the immediate future, the political focus in recent months has been on the pragmatic details of the qualifying criteria for EMU, on institutional reform and on the conditions for further enlargement. These are essential issues but they are not sufficient.

For the centre to hold, it must have a deeper significance: Europe needs to engage in self-reflection in order to find its soul.

And I should make it clear that it is this institutional Europe which needs to reflect. It may, of course, be stimulated by doing so against the background of wider developments of direct relevance: the inclusion of new members in the Council of Europe which has become a pan-European body; the role of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in promoting the democratic standards that will enable East and West to come closer together, and the development of NATO in Europe, including its Partnership for Peace. Another part of that background is the increasing globalisation of our world. Europe is a component part of the emerging worldwide economic, scientific, cultural and political interdependence. An interdependence dictated by the opening up, under the pressure of free-trade theories, of economic and financial frontiers, reinforced by the break-up of the former Soviet bloc and finding an instrument in the new information technologies.

This is such a critical time for institutional Europe that I think we must address a critical question. Can its process of organic growth be nurtured and sustained as the European Union moves from issues of institutional problem solving and confronts fundamental questions about its nature as a part-formed polity? Only, it seems to me, if the peoples affected identify with it. And for that there needs to be a community of values which earns the allegiance of its citizens. They must feel at heart that it stands for something.

We need to step back from the process and discern these core values. We need a language to communicate them. The language and the leadership will differ in different countries and regions because the appeal is essentially to a sense of identity, and the layers or components of individual, regional and national identity vary greatly. The challenge is to draw on the richness of that diversity and reinforce the strands which bind people together in a whole which enhances the parts. We need to develop that vital sense of connectedness on which we should go forward together.


Self reflection

The self-reflection I am calling for must begin, inevitably, with individual identity. So I began to unravel the personal sense I have of being both Irish and European, and of being comfortable in both skins. Indeed, it goes deeper than that, because my roots are in County Mayo in the West of Ireland, in the ancient province of Connaught. I still recall my sense of excitement as a young lawyer, in being able to invoke Community law before an Irish court to challenge discrimination against women in the workplace. The procedure, involving a reference by the Irish Court to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg for a ruling on the interpretation of the law, only enhanced the sense of a European level of values reinforcing the rights of women workers in Ireland. And yet, this example, important to me in encapsulating my personal identification with the European ideal, is also to some extent dated. It evokes that period of European development when a corpus of European rights expanded on and complemented national rights.

We are moving on to a new period of development. Part of the essence of the current challenge is that the European project itself continues to evolve, requiring from the citizens affected an identification with and allegiance to those developments. Once again, the member states of the European Union are engaged in an intense cycle of constitution building against a background of growing demands from non-member states for accession and mounting international pressure for a stronger, more coherent EU presence in world politics. In facing this challenge, let us pause to look back.

The founding fathers – and I note, with regret, it was just fathers! ¬were prepared to take risks to alter relations between states in Europe. They were prepared to engage in institution building and collective governance. The search for greater co-operation was born out of war and defeat. It was inspired by the desire of Europe’s post-war leaders to stop the bloodshed and to reconcile the wartime antagonists. The shadow of a painful past would be overcome by the image of a better future. The European project was and is a unique and

novel experiment in relations between states. It was and is original in that it is being attempted on a voluntary and non-coercive basis. It is government with a light touch. In the words of the earliest Treaty, the Treaty of Paris signed in April 1951, the six states that opted to join the Coal and Steel Community were: ‘resolved to substitute for age-old rivalries the merging of their essential interests; to create by es­tablishing an economic community the basis for a broader and deeper community among people long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the foundations for institutions which will give direction to a destiny henceforward shared’.

It is this latter, ‘a destiny henceforward shared’ that has been crit­ical in binding the states and societies of Western Europe more

closely together. This was to be a Union that would grow organically from the framework established in the original Treaties. The desire to forge co-operation out of conflict, reconciliation out of difference, highlights the exemplary nature of the European project. The original and exemplary nature of the Union tends to get lost in the fog surrounding its complex institutional and legal structures. The excitement of the original design needs to be reclaimed.

The political vision of Monnet, Schumann and Adenauer rested on three ideals: peace, prosperity and the creative channelling of nationalism. They knew that to protect peace they had to deliver pro­sperity to peoples devastated by war and memories of the Great Depression. Peace was also dependent on ensuring that the worst excesses of nationalism which ravaged the European continent in two world wars would not re-emerge. But we must remember that the taming of nationalism was never about wiping out differences and Europe’s diverse identities. Rather the aim was to allow different identities find shelter under a common roof so that ‘self and other’ could co-exist in harmony. The European framework was to be one within which Europeans could celebrate difference rather than stifle it, or still less, root it out.

Looking back at those early days it is clear that in order to achieve these three ideals, the European project was built around a number of core elements which provide the essential cement binding the member states’ peoples together. The European Community was founded on a set of unique and balanced institutions which combined the protection of national interest with the collective European interest. The key was a creative tension between the national and the European, between specific interests and the need to forge collective interests. The European Court of Justice, for example, contributed enormously to strengthening integration by developing a set of legal principles which guide the interpretation of the Treaties at a European level and within the national legal systems. By allowing Europeans to trade freely with each other, the common market increased Europe’s pro­sperity and the level of interdependence among the states of Western Europe.

Now, the marking of the 40th anniversary is an apposite time to reclaim the ideals and values that underpinned integration from the beginning. The search for peace, prosperity and the taming of nation­alism has considerable resonance in contemporary Europe as West­ern and Eastern Europe move closer together. The rejoining of the Eastern and Western parts of the continent is a moral and historical imperative for Europe as it faces the next century. This is the first time in history when the prospect of Europe as a continent of democ­racies has real meaning. Never before has democracy been seen as the ideal in terms of political order right across the continent.

Even in those post-communist states that are still struggling to embed democracy, democratic forces and people power are much more robust than at any time in the past.


European principles

The European Union, which has emphazised the core value that only democracies can become members, should be leading with initiatives strengthening democracy in its own institutions, through deepening the direct participation by and accountability to citizens. It is the ideal context in which to promote discussion on good govern­ance in modern civil societies, on the promotion of ‘bottom up’ self-development in areas of social disadvantage. Frequent reference is made to the rich cultural diversity of Europe. But the strength of that diversity is not just that differences co-exist, but that they engage in listening to, understanding and learning from each other. And yet, is there sufficient evidence of innovative thinking by political leaders, which instinctively builds in the relevance of the European dimension to the political issues of the day? Is it not the case that the more serious the problems, the more the focus for tackling them is on action at the national or sub-national level? The concerns of citizens within all the member states include fears about job insecurity and unemployment, future competitiveness and the sustainability of welfare and pension rights. How those fears are addressed will shape the dynamic of European developments.

Put simply, the historic task of the Union during this phase is to use its resources and institutions to ensure that all of Europe is committed to the ‘principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law’ as the Dublin draft Treaty of last December proposes. That draft Treaty includes the aspiration to transform the Union into ‘an area of freedom, se­curity and justice’.

To achieve its historic mission of fostering peace, prosperity and democracy throughout Europe, the Union must build on the strengths of the past but must find sources of renewal and inclusion. It is also necessary to enhance the constitutional character of the existing Union. The Union faces the challenge of ensuring its effectiveness and legitimacy while managing Europe’s great diversity. Diversity must turn into a source of strength, not weakness and fragmentation. How can this be achieved?

It is not just an information problem. I am aware of and applaud the renewed efforts being made to bring the Union closer to the individual citizen. Last November I witnessed the launch of the Citizens First programme in Dublin, as part of an information initiative by the European Parliament and the European Commission. I was pleased to learn that Irish citizens are to the fore in availing of this access to information on the rights they enjoy under the single market.

But the issues go deeper than having access to information. The Union must appeal to us as citizens and not just as consumers and workers. Only by reaffirming the values underlying integration can this be achieved. The West of Ireland, where I come from and which I have described as the periphery of the periphery, is a useful place from which to view the wider landscape. The perspective from the margins may be sharper, the analysis less captive to the status quo and the longer term issues easier to discern.

If a meaningful area of ‘freedom, security and justice’ is to be established as a core value, then the case must be made for enhancing the Union’s ability to take more effective action to tackle internation­al crime and terrorism. Specifically the Union must be prepared to take measures to prevent trafficking in people and offences against children, and to tackle illegal drug trafficking, as well as to enhance police and judicial cooperation. The Union must be perceived as a roof and shelter for Europe’s varied identities.

We live in a time of uncertain and unsettled identities. The collapse of the cold war order, accompanied as it was by the re-emergence of ethnic and nationalist conflicts in Europe, the growth of regionalism and the European project itself all beg questions about the relationship between identity and political order. It is important to foster the benign aspects of nationalism. President Mitterand, in one of his last public acts on the European stage in January 1995, used an address to the European Parliament to stress the historic mission of the EU. He closed his speech with the observation that ‘my generation has almost completed its work; it is carrying out its last public acts... It is therefore vital for us to pass on our experience. What I am asking you to do is almost impossible, because it means overcoming our past. And yet, if we fail to overcome our past, let there be no mistake about what will follow: ladies and gentlemen, nationalism means war’.

In overcoming our past we must move forward with courage. Let me identify two specific areas which could be sources of renewal and re-invigoration. We have found it appropriate to designate this year ‘The European Year Against Racism’. Increased pressure from rising unemployment and growing evidence of neo-Nazi groups operating across borders point to the urgent need for new measures to combat racism. The task is an immense one: it requires to be addressed not only by legislative measures securing rights but, more fundamentally, with a wholehearted commitment to changing attitudes and perceptions of ‘the other’ in all our societies. In Dublin, just recently, I launched the Irish programme of the European Year Against Racism in the presence of our Minister for Equality and Law Reform and members of the national committee which had been established to implement the objectives of the programme. I listened to a member of the travelling community in Ireland describe the daily experience of discrimination and racist attitudes suffered by that indige­nous ethnic grouping. But he also emphasised the significance for the travelling community of being able to join with representatives of other ethnic and minority groups in Ireland in having a forum and structure to combat racism and discrimination. As I spoke with the representatives of ethnic and minority groups who had gathered for the launch, I was conscious that a raw edge of our society, which was usually covered over, was being exposed to healing light.

Each of our societies has these raw edges, and they are different in each. But we have the opportunity to gain painful and yet important insights through sharing experiences of how we address specific problems at national level, and by reinforcing these values at European level. Just as sharing a problem through discussing it with members of a family, or among neighbours, develops a bond, so shar­ing our difficulties in combating racist attitudes within national boundaries could reinforce a wider European common bond.

But is there willingness to adopt this as a core European value, so that monitoring of racism and xenophobia would be effective at the European level? Or is there substance in the complaint of some human rights bodies that the EU is focusing more attention on deterring immigration than on combating racism?

The other area which could be a resource for renewing and strengthening the Union as a community of values is the contribution made to international development and protection of human rights.

I have just returned from a third visit to Rwanda, on this occasion to participate in a pan-African conference of women leaders address­ing issues of peace, gender and development. It is instructive to try to see these issues from the perspective of a country like Rwanda as it tries to cope with the scale of problems following the genocidal killing in 1994 and the return of some million and a half refugees from the camps in Zaire and Tanzania shortly before Christmas.

I believe that in Rwanda, and in the other countries of the Great Lakes Region, there is a growing perception of the significance of the international presence and role of the European Union. The prob­lems on the ground are increasingly seen as needing a broader re­ sponse within the region itself. Equally, the Union has an advantage over bilateral country to country relationships in that it represents a European regional response. Visits by troikas at times of particular crises, the designation of the special EU representative Agello, the role of the Commissioner Bonino and the significant commitment of resources by the European Union have strengthened the perception that it is a major player.

However, the reality within the European Union is that the re­sponsibility for development co-operation is not generally allocated to a senior Minister. Is the Union underestimating the strength of the support and allegiance it could gain from nongovernmental organisations and concerned citizens through giving strong leadership in this area?

Resistance to any form of racism and support for human rights are core values and the dynamic of European integration must stem from its essence as a community of values. The loyalty and alle­giance of citizens has to be earned by the Union’s capacity to strike an inner chord and add a subtle dimension to their sense of themselves. And so, the concept of European citizenship enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty means that identities are being examined and redefined, as individuals, cities, regions and states come to terms with the dynamics of the ‘New Europe’.


The paradox of identity

I believe that Ireland’s experience in the Union is instructive on the question of national identity and integration. Identity implies a certain paradox. An identity to some extent is bound up with the idea of sameness, of being a member of a group which may speak the same language or have same reference points. Equally, the identity of a person is the individuality, the uniqueness that sets him or her apart. Considerations of identity run the full gamut from the indi­vidual through to the supranational entity.

In Ireland we are imbued with a profound sense of the value of the local and the small, the townland and the parish. This sense of the local is captured by Patrick Kavanagh in a poem called Epic which begins:

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided, who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

And then having described a neighbours’ quarrel, the poem concludes:

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which

was more important? I inclined

To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind

He said: I made the Iliad from such

a local row. Gods make their own importance.

How can we now define this sense of ourselves, which is rooted in our history and in our locality, as we become integrated more and more into the wider Europe which itself is in the throes of change and flux? How can we ensure the refreshment of a wider culture by the recognition of a local one? Concerns are expressed that by homogenising the market place, the things of commerce and trade, we will somehow all become reduced to a grey sameness. The market need to harmonise weights, measures and ingredients of products is seen as somehow impinging on our identity and culture, removing that which makes us unique. This must be a concern for any country or region forming a voluntary association. However, we should not be too fearful. Each country’s, each region’s, each person’s individuality, is the intangible historical, environmental, familial and individ­ual experience that goes into making it. It is not reducible to a single formula or equation to be wiped clean and redefined at any whim or fancy.


Greater meaning and value

What membership of the European Union has done for us in Ireland in a very profound way is to broaden our horizons, to widen the range of our discourse, to inject another dimension to our dialogue. To embed Irish identity in a wider framework. This has not dimin­ished our identity. On the contrary, it has deepened it in many respects and given it greater meaning and value.

Nor should we fearful of the emergence of a wider European identity as part of a circle or hierachy of identities. A stronger sense of we-feeling between the peoples of Europe will be necessary if the Union is to enhance its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. The challenge is to construct a European identity that rests on inclusive rather than exclusive values.

What principles should inform this search? First, Europe needs to continue to appeal to a better future, to ‘a destiny henceforward shared’. It is not in our interest for Europe to return to fragmentation and national closures. Second, diversity itself is a value that must be protected in the New Europe. To be European should mean being part of a rich diversity through which alone the ‘all-European’ identity exists. One would be European through being Irish, German, Dutch and also Bavarian, Scottish, Catalonian. All Europeans experience their Europeanness in different ways. Third, we must build a European identity based on Europe’s great tradition of citizenship and the strengths of our civil societies rather than myths of dubious historical validity.

As the countries of East Central Europe and beyond struggle with the transition to democracy and market economy, the Union and its member states must strive to be generous and open, rather than giving undue emphasis to short term interests. Enlargement will undoubtedly pose a severe strain on the Union’s institutions and will require adaption in the Union and the member states. If, however, enlargement is achieved, then the prospects for prosperity and peace across Europe are greatly increased.

Let us take an imaginative leap forward for a moment. Perhaps the best way to mark the first forty years of European institutional development is to project ahead and imagine the viewpoint of Europeans in the year 2037 looking back. What will they – including some of us – think of the decisions being taken now? What will the verdict be? Will there be an acknowledgement of the vision which was needed not just to negotiate the footbridge to the Millennium, but to set in place the structures for organic growth appropriate for that longer time span?

More information


Terug naar boven