European Solidarity: Some food for thought
A timely conference at the University of Augsburg in Germany last week (23-25 June) explored the meaning of European solidarity. For three days, scholars from across Europe and the US discussed what European solidarity has meant for Europe, Europeans and the rest of the world since 1800. The Brexit vote did not go unnoticed and the irony of the timing (a true coincidence) was felt by all. But the papers also offered a critical engagement with a notion which has been at the forefront of some of Europe’s best and worst moments. The history of European solidarity certainly offers some food for thought.
An ambivalent heritage
When you hear the word ‘solidarity’, you might automatically assume it is a good thing. You might picture people helping each other out. You might think of more or less symbolic actions, such as asserting support for a cause or changing your profile picture on Facebook. In all these cases, acts of solidarity seem to capture an expression of empathy, or at least a good intention. This is the reason solidarity is often upheld as an ideal and a means to achieve greater ‘social cohesion’. Social policy is the attempt to turn solidarity into law and the notion is of course the cornerstone of the project of European integration.
Yet from a historical standpoint, European solidarity is a contested and ambivalent heritage. The contributions touched on different theoretical conceptions of solidarity derived from Christian teachings, Socialist thought, Liberalism but also right-wing thinking. Its meaning varies in different languages and contexts. The papers also tackled different practical expressions of solidarity. Some speakers presented the efforts of intellectuals, politicians and institutions such as trade unions, political parties or the European Union to integrate social groups (from workers and migrants to nations). Others dealt with the concept’s global dimension in terms of international cooperation and international law. This made it clear that the concept has a range of different meanings, uses and limitations too.
The main finding was that there is a tension between ‘solidarity’ as a pillar of European thought since the French Revolution and solidarity’s justification of controversial policies. While solidarity exists alongside the enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality, it has also served to support imperialism, war, genocide and, more recently austerity or counterterrorism. Solidarity served the cause of ‘white solidarity’ among colonial nations, military alliances in the two world wars and national interests against those of unwanted others (foreigners, migrants). Its use has been inflationary since the 1970s, in the context of the dismantling of the welfare state and increasing disparities of wealth. Its mobilisation can be linked to populist politics, insecurity and fear.
How and why study solidarity
A key question for the conference participants was how to define and therefore study solidarity. Is it an emotion, a normative stance, a political slogan? From this derives: Solidarity for whom? Why? And with what consequence?
There is no straightforward answer to these questions. But speakers repeatedly mentioned the same distinct features regarding the contexts in which solidarity arises. With this, they provided some interesting insights into the phenomenon. Firstly, solidarity is a sign of a need, and thus a problem, perhaps even a crisis. Secondly, it almost always comes about in an uneven relationship, implying a ‘helped’ and a helper and therefore an unequal connection. Thirdly, and most importantly, it tends to exclude and include at the same time. Indeed, solidarity almost always assumes an ‘other’ against which one is ‘sticking together’.
As the keynote speaker, the Sociologist Gerard Delanty argued, solidarity constitutes a claim to membership in a group. It can therefore be a destabilising factor. Appeals to solidarity with refugees in the name of shared humanity, for instance, may call for their inclusion into the nation. But the nation may depend on a quite different conception of solidarity and the motion thus trigger conflict and opposition. Solidarities can be strong or weak, multiple and opposed. As a result, historically, ‘solidarity’ appears to have often led to the exact opposite of what was called for: competition, fragmentation and the defence of narrow, strategic interests.
Many participants in the conference agreed on solidarity’s importance as a rhetorical device and social motivation. This is particularly true in modern society, where challenges are global and social actors have significant agency. The diverse presentations showed it is a useful perspective on the history of modern Europe. However, as a contingent and malleable term, one needs to consider carefully the contexts of its deployment. Most participants were doubtful it could serve as an analytical tool and sceptical about its political uses. Solidarity is not the naive, consensual and benign ideal it appears to be at first sight. Studying it thus helps explain why the appeals to solidarity–in fact quite different kinds of solidarity–may be contributing to Europe’s division rather than its unification.