Solidarity has emerged as a main reference concept in the COVID-19 crisis. Since the escalation of the COVID-19 crisis the notion of solidarity occupies a central place in the communication of national and state governments in Germany but also in the highest level of the European Union. The Union is once again in a crossroads. Are we ready for transnational solidarity? And more precisely, are Germans ready for transnational solidarity?
Solidarität hat sich in der COVID-19-Krise zu einem wichtigen Referenzkonzept entwickelt. Seit der Eskalation der COVID-19-Krise nimmt der Begriff der Solidarität einen zentralen Platz in der Kommunikation von Regierungen auf Länder- sowie nationaler Ebene in Deutschland, aber auch auf der höchsten Ebene der Europäischen Union ein. Die Union steht wieder einmal an einem Scheideweg. Sind wir bereit für transnationale Solidarität? Und genauer gesagt: Sind die Deutschen bereit für transnationale Solidarität?
Solidarity is a fuzzy concept, especially in times of crises. The most used understanding of solidarity currently is based on the interpretation of Andrea Sangiovanni, professor at the European University Institute. He sees solidarity as a joint action for overcoming an adversity while relying on a shared goal. This also requires the readiness to accept significant costs to realize this goal. In the times of COVID-19 the whole world is faced with the same adversity, an unknown virus that threatens lives and public health systems across the globe. The common goal in the first phase of the crisis was to flatten the curve. To achieve this common goal mitigation measures were put in place and compliance to these measures through limiting one’s freedom of movement and freedom of economic activity was an action of solidarity to fellow humans.
Now the curve is flattened. We are not in immediate danger of overwhelming our health systems. But the mitigation measures themselves caused the second phase of the crisis: the economic crisis. While face this (expected to be unprecedented) crisis governments will be aiming to keep the curve flat. The trade-offs between choices that make sense in terms of economics and choices that favour public health will be unavoidable. Each state will be faced with a harsh truth. Wider parts of the population are or will be affected by income and even job loss, will be more dependent by welfare benefits and companies will be in need of financial support to stay afloat while many will file bankruptcy.
How can it be applied in the transnational level?
The upcoming economic crisis may be the one that will break the European Union, according to the French President Emmanuel Macron, if member states fail to strengthen solidarity between them. Truth is, even in this crisis, some countries have been hit harder than others. Italy and Spain needed to impose stricter measures to contain the spread of the virus, while others, like Greece, in fear of breaking their already shaky public health systems took very harsh preventing measures. Those countries will be in need of financial support. Catherine de Vries, professor of political science at Bocconi University and EU expert stressed the need for more financial transfers from richer to poorer EU member states in an attempt to realign differing economic trajectories. But are European leaders ready to take that risk?
Can Germans accept EU solidarity?
German Chancellor Merkel is faced with this dilemma. German public opinion has increased its esteem for her due to her excellent management of the crisis. She has the political capital to implement a long-term change especially as she does not need to care anymore for short-term political survival. Truth is however, that German public opinion is divided.
In the Solikris Project (a BMBF funded cooperation between GESIS, WZB, and University of Heidelberg) we have collected data using the GESIS Panel infrastructure to understand solidarity in different crisis scenarios. We created a generic scenario where an EU country faced a crisis without naming it, and then two more specific scenarios, where the same country faced the two very specific crises of national bankruptcy and a refugee wave. On average respondents were more willing to support other EU countries in the generic scenario, while the migration crisis came second and the national bankruptcy last. Overall Germans are more willing than not to show solidarity to other EU countries in need, but there is of course variation among the constituents of different parties. Greens are the more supportive of transnational solidarity, while (not surprising) AfD voters are those most opposed to transnational solidarity.
FIGURE: Public support for transnational solidarity in Germany (per party).
Solidarity needs a solid political community as a base where individuals share the feeling of responsibility for one another. The perception of mutual dependency is the key that feeds solidarity. This perception varies across the political spectrum, and lately, with identity politics this issue has been more politicised. However the majority of Germans seem to be rather in favour of acting in solidarity to other member states in need.
The ball is thus again in the field of political elites. Despite an effort to communicate otherwise, hopes for European solidarity have proven thus far to be an illusion. This development puts the feeling of belonging and thus also the potential for acting in solidarity in even more shaky basis. The question that remains to be answered is if short term political gains can be put to hold for a while so that brave long term decisions can be taken. Given the fragile nature of the European Union it is a moment of truth. The various crises waves of the past fifteen years have made clear than another blow can be proven to be the one that breaks the union. Solidarity among member states and support of this solidarity by citizens of each member state is the shield to keep the Union standing.