European Elections Special

Solidarity – a misunderstanding?

Solidarity is no altruistic trait. In fact, it is mostly selfish. And that is just one of the misunderstandings regarding solidarity in the EU.

Has Europe shown solidarity during the crisis? Across the continent, this question has sparked many heated debates. But what does solidarity even mean?

We know it as the iconic “all for one, one for all”, a slogan employed by the three musketeers and popular among firefighters. Yet it doesn’t mean that solidarity is an unconditional surrender to someone else. It is rather a logical conclusion of having a common goal that can only be reached by common means. It means that regardless of their individual potential, all parties do all they can to reach this goal. And should one of them be overwhelmed, others step in to take their place.

Europe wasn’t designed for solidarity

In that sense, solidarity is both not conditioned and fully conditioned. Not conditioned means that everyone makes an effort towards a goal – and therefore towards others. “Fifty percent solidarity” is an oxymoron. Fully conditioned means that all are required to give all they can. Solidarity is not idealistic but much like a contract: It is reciprocal and requires common goals.

Therefore, solidarity is not altruistic – but rather selfish. In contrast to what is commonly assumed, it is built on an expectation of reciprocity – even if the payback is temporarily detached from one’s own contribution. Jürgen Habermas has called solidarity the “other end of justice”, saying it is derived from the welfare of an intersubjectively shared lifestyle of related comrades. Crucially, these comrades have agreed to individually make an effort to safeguard their collective lifestyle.

The idea of solidarity also lies at the heart of insurance: Everyone contributes and whoever most needs it gets a payout. All members contribute in the knowledge that misfortune could strike them – in which case they would enjoy the aid they are now granting others. If someone violates the agreement by not paying his dues or by setting her own house on fire, that person will be ousted from the insurance.

Putting European solidarity to the test

The common European currency was never designed with solidarity in mind. Quite the opposite is true: The no-bail-out clause of Article 125 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union explicitly bans solidarity. But if support cannot be earned by adhering to the rules, why should the rules be upheld? Many European countries asked themselves this very question and concluded that adherence to the Stability and Growth Pact of 1997 caused nothing but domestic turmoil while having no tangible benefits on the European level. Consequently, most of them ignored the treaty’s statutes.

The crisis hasn’t put European solidarity to the test – it has really been instrumental in creating solidarity through a painful process. Today, there are not only rules – which existed beforehand – but also clear conditions. A solidarity fund (the ESM) has been established, which requires members to adhere to clear guidelines if they want to someday enjoy its benefits.

At the beginning of the Greek crisis in 2010, Slovakia refused to participate in the aid package for Greece. At the time, Slovakian finance minister Ivan Mikloš gave the following reason: “Solidarity of the poor with the rich, of the responsible with the irresponsible and of the taxpayer with the bank owners and managers is no true solidarity.”

Solidarity without emotions

The Slovaks are understandably upset about paying for a country wealthier than their own. But Mikloš’ definition of solidarity is misguided. He implies that true solidarity consists of the rich paying for the poor. In reality, solidarity means mutual help, help that isn’t granted on grounds of individual wealth but based on the rules agreed upon in a community. “Solidarity” is no moral category; it is a safety agreement based on dependency.

Making this realization could cool down the temperature of the pan-European discourse, which currently consists of far too many accusations: One side claims to be “paying for the others’ slack” while the other side complains that “their austerity destroys our social fabric”.

In order to increase solidarity in Europe, we must first therefore rid the term of its moral undertones and see it for what it truly is: An agreement to make a common effort to reach a common goal. In itself, solidarity implies neither good nor evil – just as car insurance doesn’t.

Of course, engaging in a more rational discourse does not rule out other kinds of support, such as humanitarian help or gifts. The European project has room for those kinds of emotions – they just shouldn’t affect solidarity.

Translated from German by Lars Mensel

Read more in this debate: Martin Brusis, Juliane Mendelsohn.


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