Europe's Solidarity under Siege

Is the European Union's solidarity fracturing? After bruising enlargement negotiations and internal differences over Iraq, and with similar divisions surrounding the new EU constitution and the common European foreign and defense policy, one might well think just that. Public opinion polls also show a dramatic decline in support for enlargement within the current EU member states. Whether or not the crisis of European solidarity is real is a fundamental question, because the EU will not survive without solidarity, at least not as we know it.

The sense of equality and solidarity is a necessary foundation of any democratic community. In the 1950's the British sociologist T. S. Marshall wrote about the progress of rights, from civil rights in the 18 th century, to political (democratic) rights in the 19 th century, to social rights in the 20 th century. These three dimensions--liberal, democratic and social--describe the modern European nation state.

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Solidarity played the most central role in the 20 th century. Indeed, it was the driving force behind the development of the European countries in the wake of World War II, and led to their transformation into "social states" emphasizing social security and a variety of welfare programs. We can measure this "institutionalized solidarity" in a nation state by the share of redistribution in its GDP.

There is also another level of solidarity, which we can call universal or global solidarity. Its importance--reflected in various forms of international aid-- has been very limited until now. Its objective is not to ensure the equality of citizens' rights, but to guarantee minimum life conditions. Humanitarian interventions--much discussed in the 1990's--are another manifestation of this global solidarity.

Between citizen solidarity at the nation-state level and humanitarian solidarity on the global level lies a third level of solidarity which is most interesting for Europeans--the EU level. In its early years the European Community was mainly concerned with peace, stability and democracy. But institutionalized solidarity has become increasingly important in European consolidation and intra-European redistribution played a key role in the modernization of Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece.

At the same time, the Zeitgeist has turned against the ideals of solidarity since the 1970's. Solidarity has lost ground against new demands of individual freedom, and even more against the imperative of economic efficiency, which became ever more pressing as a result of globalization. A "revolt of the middle classes" that increasingly refuse to pay for society's "underdogs" is accompanied by budgetary constraints that can also make solidarity seem a luxury.

The demands of solidarity are even more difficult to sustain when they require inter-state redistribution. A refusal to carry the transfer costs associated with multinational states contributed to the "velvet divorce" between the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the dramatic breakdown of ex-Yugoslavia. Similar tensions exist in some West European countries (Belgium, Spain, Italy) as well.

EU enlargement, with the prospect of increased cross-national redistribution, thus exposes particularly thorny issues of European solidarity. The promised annual EU payments to the candidate members are far below those made to current members. Poland, for example, will get about 67 euros per year per capita during 2004-2006, Hungary will receive 49 euros, and the Czech Republic will get just 29 euros. By contrast, Greece received 437 euros per capita in 2000, Ireland got 418 euros, and Portugal was paid 211 euros.

To be sure, Europe, with its sluggish growth, feels less rich than in the past, when the earlier accession deals were negotiated. But the difference in treatment of the current candidate countries does not just reflect budgetary problems. The changing attitudes of citizens of the more developed member states and the weakening of the sense of obligation entailed by solidarity are also responsible (probably primarily so).

The sense of solidarity between the candidate countries and current EU members is further weakened by the problem of external security. The accession states only recently regained their independence, and so retain a feeling of uncertainty as to their security. These jitters contributed to the support they gave to the US position on Iraq, which in turn provoked the irritation of some Western European leaders and the decline of public support in the member states for EU enlargement.

Yet another potentially important source of fraying European solidarity is the changing architecture of the EU. Status differentiation is progressively replacing the model of equal rights and obligations of all member states. Ten years ago, Wolfgang Schäuble and Karl Lamers suggested the formation of a "core Europe," a group of countries that would speed up integration among themselves. Similar ideas, especially concerning security and foreign policy have proliferated ever since. Such a tendency can contribute to a further weakening of solidarity and deepening of intra-European divisions.

The process of differentiation--inevitable to some extent, given the number and the diversity of member states--is also reinforced by the attitude of the new entrants. "Return to Europe" is no longer the battle cry of the new post-communist democracies. Public debates now focus on financial support from the EU and the status of individual nation states, rather than European destiny and common European projects.

There are fears on both sides. This is understandable, given the scope of enlargement and the need for an internal transformation of the Union. But these fears and the atmosphere of suspicion must be overcome. Mutual trust must be reinforced. The constitutional debate in the next several months should focus on these major questions: why and how Europe's peoples want to live together. The concept of solidarity should obviously be central to this debate.