In a thinly veiled reference to the EU’s troika and austerity programmes, President Higgins warned that democracy was in peril, and said it was time parliaments took back power, and rejected narrow-focused automatic rules governing their economies.
The President was addressing the Council of Europe, which he referred to as the “conscience of Europe”, a distinct body from the EU with an assembly of politicians from 47 European countries including Ireland.
Never shy of tackling the major moral issues but having to tread a fine line because of the non-political role of the presidency, President Higgins nevertheless left the assembly in no doubt about his concerns.
Decisionmakers had given way to experts on “laws” governing the economy. “How have we let rating agencies, for example, who act as a modern panopticon, not bound by any democratic requirement, gain such influence on the lifeworld and prospects of our citizens.
“The largely unquestioned leaching of power and authority from parliaments to the apostles of a narrow version of fiscal orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that seems predicated on a de-peopled economy”, was a “threat for the future of European democracy”, he said.
Decisions that should be debated in parliaments were now abandoned “to the automaticity of rigid fiscal rules”, based on one economic viewpoint.
Elected politicians also needed to reassert themselves in areas of foreign policy as well as economic and fiscal policy, and must hold governments to account for what they say and do in the wider world in the name of citizens. He praised the Council for producing the Marty report exposing European countries’ co-operation with the CIA’s kidnapping of terrorism suspects and allowing them to be tortured in some cases.
“The Council of Europe has shown in the past that it had the ability not to lose sight of fundamental human rights, for instance when the general atmosphere in the West had overtones of a new crusade,” he said.
He tackled threats by Britain to rein in the European Court of Human Rights, which is attached to the Council of Europe, expressing his disquiet at what he said were attempts that risked undermining the legitimacy of the court and the Convention on Human Rights.
The Irish establishment has had a mixed relationship with the court, having taken and won major cases including proving torture against the British government in Northern Ireland but defended the ban on abortion cases taken by citizens.
Independent MEP Nessa Childers said President Higgins’s insights into the mistakes made by the EU leadership in response to the financial and economic crisis deserve our attention.
“The human costs, the risks of regressive radical backlashes and the unequal attention paid to different interests are all ignored by neat mathematical models that may work well on paper but which have failed to yield acceptable results even when diligently applied,” she said.
Fine Gael MEP and former minister of state in the Department of Finance Brian Hayes said: “The president is reflecting a genuine concern that a fragmented Europe in terms of economic development, will unleash dangerous forces that Europe might find difficult to contain”.
READ NEXT: Ireland should join in calls for a European debt conference