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“Solidarity Has a Strong Feel-Good Factor”


In our first transnational debate on European affairs, lawmakers Paolo Guerrieri from Italy and Joost Taverne from the Netherlands talk about what “European solidarity” means.

Let’s start with the central question: What does European solidarity mean to you, Mr.  Taverne?
JOOST TAVERNE: The word brings to mind first and foremost helping each other, banding together in extraordinary circumstances. Luckily we don’t witness natural disasters or failed harvests here in Europe very often; we tend instead to see the basic, common occurrences that call for helping one another.

Mr. Guerrieri, do you have the same understanding of European solidarity?
PAOLO GUERRIERI: Yes, I think it’s a concept that is very much related to what we call a European public good or European collective action. Solidarity means nothing more than trying to recognize the existence of a kind of public good or collective action, and then figuring out how to coordinate joint action. Solidarity is very important, but it should be very much related to responsibility. Those two concepts should be combined when we refer to things like common defense, the problem of security, and climate change.

But doesn’t solidarity mean different things to different people? If you look at the refugee crisis, at first it was a problem of southern nations like Italy and Greece, but then refugees started coming to Germany. And all of a sudden Berlin discovered solidarity might mean something else. Isn’t it a difficult concept to define?
GUERRIERI: Solidarity is a word that has a very strong feel-good factor. The moment you use it, it’s hard to be against it. I think solidarity is not a continuous phenomenon. It arises in particularly difficult situations. And yes, solidarity means something different to different people at different points, that’s completely true. I also feel that it’s sometimes misused as a way to either get something done or to convince people that what is being done is correct.

Do you mean that we should be careful with using it?
GUERRIERI: Yes, we should be careful, especially because EU and European integration is such a sensitive and important initiative. I never believed that integration should take place solely at the European level. My idea, and the idea of many others, was one of multilevel governance. In other words, you have some things you should deal with on the European level, other issues should be dealt with on the national level, and others still at the local level.
It’s really important to be very selective with what should be done on the European level. If you take immigration, for example, I think it’s really clear that when we created the Schengen space, we established the importance of having free movement of goods and people. Unfortunately, we stopped halfway – we created border-free movement, but we forgot the instruments to manage and govern a free common space. From my point of view, the common border should have some kind of shared management, in terms of common coast guards that should help national guards deal with borders. Immigration is a classic case where you have multilevel, national, and even local responsibilities.

Are you satisfied with the amount of solidarity Italy has received during the refugee crisis?
GUERRIERI: No, I don’t think we did it right. As a European country and even a Schengen member country, we somehow looked at immigration as a classic national or local issue. We created this very important common good – the Schengen common space – but we forgot to build the rest of the infrastructure. There was a recent decision to create a common border guard that could help very much to enforce national control, but the Dublin asylum principle is completely obsolete in terms of what is needed. We can’t say that it’s up to the country where people first land. That is essentially denying that it is a shared problem.
TAVERNE: Paolo, this is really well put. However, in my view solidarity is in some ways the complement to responsibility. There is so much more to say on immigration, but I see solidarity as almost like insurance: You have your own responsibility as an individual or as a country to do whatever is expected of you or what you agreed to. There can be circumstances that aren’t manageable for that individual or organization or country, and that’s the moment when others step in, where solidarity may help. But solidarity shouldn’t take away that basic responsibility.
If we look at the current situation, sometimes I see the sentiment that “now it’s our turn, we have a right to solidarity.” Solidarity is given; there is no right to it. The moment that the ones who need solidarity behave in a way that makes it difficult for those who have to show solidarity, the balance tips. That leads to a lack of solidarity in the end, and that doesn’t help anyone.

Would you subscribe to the notion that stronger nations, in particular a big, strong, and economically healthy country like Germany, should be particularly generous with Europe?
GUERRIERI: No, I try to look at it from a more abstract point of view. If Germany decides to act generously, it’s Germany’s choice. You can win the lottery and people, your friends and family, may expect that you pay the next round at the bar, but you don’t have to. Of course, Germany might feel obligated to do something extra, but the country in need shouldn’t behave in a way that keeps Germany from being generous. Those in need should behave in such way that allows others to show solidarity.

What about the Netherlands – the Dutch are contributing a sizeable amount to the EU, especially in relation to the country’s size.
TAVERNE: Yes, definitely. We are net contributors to the EU and in effect also to the euro. In 2006 when the eurocrisis started, people in the Netherlands saw images of Greek people on the evening news burning the ministry of whatever to the ground because they were protesting raising the retirement age from 55 to 57, whereas we just raised it to 67. Dutch people were always told that we give a lot to the European Union and the euro but it’s all worth it. But we were watching TV thinking: “What the heck. We work our backsides off and now they’re acting in a way that makes it difficult for us to show solidarity.”
That happens within the Netherlands, too. We have a very strong welfare system and social benefits, but at the moment it’s obvious that too many people abuse it. People who contribute to maintain the system will automatically lose motivation to continue doing so. And again, the basis for solidarity will be eroded and the system as a whole will suffer.
GUERRIERI: If I could add something on the problems of euro area governance: Solidarity could be considered a sort of collective insurance. It’s a guarantee that if something serious happens, there’s some kind of common insurance. An insurance guarantee is a public good that is very useful for anybody, but the risk is that people behave like free riders. In other words, because there is this guarantee, because there are these collective insurances, they act irresponsibly. That means that others are going to pay for their irresponsible behavior.
You end up in a cul-de-sac. Countries on one side say we are ready to subscribe to this insurance plan but we don’t trust the other members because they could exploit it. First they have to show responsibility and only afterwards we will provide insurance. On the other side, the countries that need that insurance, they claim that they need the guarantee to prove responsibility.
Take the banking union in Europe, which was a very important agreement. There is no monetary union without a banking union based upon individual member responsibility – otherwise it doesn’t work. But we created an incomplete banking union, without a common deposit guarantee. Why? Because countries like Germany don’t want to subscribe. They insist that everyone has to show responsibility in terms of the banking system first – that’s what they ask of Italy, Greece, and others. So, we have no banking union. And if some serious financial crisis happens again, member countries are going to be left alone once again.
I think Italy should do more in terms of reducing risks in its banking system. On the other hand, Germany should recognize that without a common guaranteed deposit, there is no banking union. We have to find a compromise; this is very important. Germany thinks that it’s safe, but I think that’s an illusion. Because if something happens, the lack of insurance in the banking union is going to affect even a strong country like Germany.
TAVERNE: I agree with most of what Paolo said. He called it a cul-de-sac, but it is perhaps more like a Catch-22. His analysis and insurance metaphor with free rider behavior is completely true, but I’d like to add that if you have travel insurance and you claim it a few times too many, you run the risk of losing your policy. Every insurance company has terms and conditions allowing them to kick you out at any point, and that’s not what you want. If you have insurance with the goal of not having to use it, only if everything goes wrong and only if you experience misfortune, that is when the policy kicks in.
But at this point, solidarity has morphed into a sort of right. I agree with Paolo: You never know when you need solidarity. You might be up and running, thinking you are strong as a country, but you don’t know what the future holds. Ultimately, everyone has to be careful with solidarity, because one day you might need it yourself, and you want to make sure other countries show solidarity at that point as well.

Do you both believe there is a way out of this Catch-22?
TAVERNE: I am very pessimistic. I think at some point events will take over. We have already seen this with Brexit. We have general elections in March of this year in the Netherlands, too. Some of the major political events that we have witnessed recently have everything to do with the fact that we as politicians are not able to come to measures that can break the mold, and other forces will take over. Ultimately, something will be done about it, but it will not be in a guided, measured way.
GUERRIERI: I was also pessimistic. I thought that the usual response on the European level was to postpone, to find an easy non-solution. But I think something happened in terms of our security – not only the election of Trump, not only the “America first” phenomenon, but also China first and India first. I think this is going to change the landscape for European countries. This could be a threat, but it could also be an opportunity. It could push European countries to take a stance. In my view, we are increasingly going to face very different external governmental contexts, strong nationalistic movements, and I think this could be also an opportunity. We shouldn’t forget that every time there was a major crisis of late, the EU exhibited a very unexpected response. So, I think it’s an open-ended scenario.