For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Dr Daniele Saracino, from the Department of Government at the University of Essex, in Britain. Bonjour, Daniele!
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Your research focuses on the concept of solidarity, one of these ideas or principles that we use every day, but that deserve to be questioned on their meaning.
Solidarity is everywhere in our lives. Solidarity among workers or social movements; solidarity among family and friends; solidarity with your football club or political party; solidarity with a whistle-blower or with refugees; solidarity between states or peoples; solidarity as a core principle of the welfare state or solidarity as the social glue that holds societies together.
This is the vast, multidimensional semantic field in which solidarity meanders as a colorful, but blurry, and seemingly ubiquitous concept. While it seems to maintain a positive connotation throughout, making it so appealing in the political sphere, at the same time it comes across as arbitrary and watered-down. From an analytical research perspective, the fact that there does not seem the slightest agreement on what solidarity actually means is problematic. Even more so on the level of the European Union, where solidarity has been a key concept since the very beginnings of the European project. Just listen:
« L’Europe ne se fera pas d’un coup, ni dans une construction d’ensemble : elle se fera par des réalisations concrètes, créant d’abord une solidarité de fait. »
Ah, that’s the voice of Robert Schuman delivering his famous speech of what is commonly considered the founding act of European integration!
That’s right! He called for true, effective solidarity to build a peaceful and unified post-war Europe. Ever since, solidarity has incrementally gained significance over the course of European integration, cumulating in the Lisbon Treaty where it has been settled as one of the central precepts of the EU. It is constantly invoked on the EU level, especially in times of crisis. Nonetheless, there is no agreement in the European legal or political sphere on what the concept entails. It can therefore be assumed that there is an underlying understanding of solidarity in the EU that is embedded in the specific historical context of the concept.
So where does it actually come from?
Counterintuitively, the concept of solidarity does not originate in the labour movement or in the classics of political or philosophical thinking. It has its roots in Roman law. The principle obligatio in solidum meant the debt or obligation that every debtor had vis-à-vis the joint community of debtors they are part of. This created a joint liability in which the debtors vouch for a common debt. This principle has survived in several legal systems that are strongly influenced by the Roman law tradition, like France, where solidarity, for the first time, gains further layers of meaning, specifically during the French Revolution where it develops in contrast to and as the political discharge of fraternity.
To cut the conceptual history short, it turns out that the concept of solidarity contains overlapping elements from legal, sociological, political, philosophical, theological, economical, and linguistic spheres.
That’s a very complex etymology. How can we use your studies for the European Union today?
Applying these findings to the setup and functioning of the European Union, we find that solidarity is non-universal. It is limited to particular groups wherein actors commit themselves voluntarily to a bond and develop interdependencies to achieve common objectives.
The European Union is such a reference group, and solidarity is the means to achieve its commonly agreed political objectives. Solidarity creates a mutual connectedness between the involved actors who vouch for each other in terms of the common objectives. Ultimately, solidarity creates a reciprocal commitment and mutual responsibility that is expressed by the expectation and discharge of support and assistance.
This is how common goals can be pursued and achieved. Since the common political will of the involved actors in the European Union is cast into law, so is solidarity. Consequently, the European Court of Justice has repeatedly confirmed the fundamental significance of the solidarity principle for the European Union. There are procedural duties that regulate the support and assistance demanded by the solidarity principle.
In short, the readiness to act in solidarity and to honour the outcomes of EU policymaking are necessary conditions for the EU to function effectively. States join the European Union on their own will and accept its precepts and objectives upon accession. If the rule of law to safeguard the outcomes of the political process is not adhered to anymore, the EU loses its purpose. In short: without solidarity, the European Union just wouldn’t make sense. This is why European integration as a whole is shaken to its core when member states decide to stop honouring the rule of law, renouncing European solidarity. And this is why the Union must find ways to remind them of their commitment to solidarity.