The term “solidarity” is hard to avoid just at the moment. The European Parliament this week held a ceremony to name the vast expanse of pavement on the west side of its Brussels building the Solidarnos?c? 1980 Esplanade. That same day (30 August), the Italian government decided that it would not, after all, be imposing a “solidarity tax” on the country’s higher earners. The tax would have added 5% to the rate of tax on income of more than €90,000 a year, scaled up to 10% for income above €150,000 a year.
The European Union is supposed to know all about solidarity: the term is sprinkled liberally through the texts of the governing treaties.
The preamble to the treaty on European Union declares that the signatories desire “to deepen the solidarity between their peoples while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions”. Article 3 of the treaty declares that the EU “shall combat social exclusion and discrimination, and shall promote social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and protection of the rights of the child” and “shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among member states”.
The EU’s foreign policy shall (Article 21) advance the principles of “equality and solidarity”. The common foreign and security policy (CFSP) will be based on the development of “mutual political solidarity among member states” and member states will support the CFSP “in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity”.
The EU’s “area of freedom, security and justice” is also – no surprise here – to be “based on solidarity between member states”. The policies on border checks, asylum and immigration are to be “governed by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, including its financial implications, between the member states”. The treaty goes on to cite “a spirit of solidarity between member states” in the articles on economic policy and energy policy.
The threat of a terrorist attack warrants a specific “solidarity clause” which provides that the Union and member states shall come to the aid of any state that is attacked or threatened.
So it would seem that the concept of ‘solidarity’ is very important to the EU. Indeed, it underpins – or is supposed to underpin – much EU activity.
There is, I would guess, good reason why the treaty-drafters were so fond of the word: it cannot be narrowly defined, yet is not so vague as to be meaningless. It is a term that conveys an idea of mutual assistance and support, while not requiring a detailed description of what that assistance or support will amount to.
Problematic though ‘solidarity’ may be to define, as with other quasi-metaphysical concepts, like ‘happiness’ or ‘respect’, its absence is easy enough to detect.
In EU circles, there have been various recent instances when the spirit of solidarity has flown out of the window. The spats between France and Italy over migrants coming across the Mediterranean from north Africa are one example. Denmark’s intensification of customs controls is another. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s declaration that financial support to French carmakers should be made conditional on preserving jobs in France is another.
So to the latest example: Finland’s demand that it should have extra collateral from Greece as a condition for subscribing to the 21 July expansion of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) cannot possibly be described as “in a spirit of solidarity”. To allow special terms for one state (Finland), which wants to put itself on a different footing from other guarantors/lenders (the Netherlands, Austria et al), is to erode solidarity (and is bound to trigger demands from other states for matching terms).
I can see how the mess was arrived at: the preparation for the 21 July summit of eurozone leaders was inadequate. There was pressure to arrive at a headline agreement that could be offered up to the financial markets, but there were too many loose ends that had not been tied up in advance. The Finnish government was only one of several governments attaching their particular concerns. In addition, since the EFSF is an intergovernmental agreement, outside the EU’s formal structures, its arrangements are not subject to the same legal disciplines.
Whatever the extenuating circumstances, the uncomfortable truth remains that the European Commission failed in its duty, which is not just to be a guardian of the treaty, but also to be a guardian of that much-vaunted spirit of solidarity. The Commission, supposedly the honest broker between member states, has to stick up for solidarity, even when, as is the case with the EFSF, its formal role is limited. José Manuel Barroso, the president of the Commission, and Olli Rehn, the commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, should never have let the Finnish demand take root. In this case, sotto voce mutterings were not enough. The idea of bilateral guarantees should have been condemned – vociferously, if necessary.
The Commission is under pressure, but still has to keep an eye on the bigger picture. The question that looms in the foreground of the bigger picture is whether nurturing and maintaining a spirit of solidarity is possible in an EU of 27 states. If the answer is ‘No’, then there is more than the future of the euro at stake.
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