Philosopher Philippe Van Parijs on the meanings of European solidarity

Philosopher Philippe Van Parijs on the meanings of European solidarity
The most symbolically visual images of solidarity during the lockdowns saw people around Europe join together each evening, clapping from windows and balconies to show appreciation for hospital staff, while also serving to strengthen the spirit of their neighbours.

There are few words that have experienced a more spectacular upsurge in popularity in the current crisis than the word “solidarity”. People are clapping on their balconies out of solidarity with hospital staff. The young are asked to show solidarity with the old, and the old with the young. Northern Europe is expected to show solidarity with southern Europe and Europe with Africa. You have published two books entitled Sauver la solidarité and Refonder la solidarité. Has this omnipresence of “solidarity” prompted you to give more thought to this idea?

It certainly has. In part because of something that has been intriguing me for quite a while: the very prominent yet ambiguous role played by the notion of “solidarity” in the process of European integration.

“Solidarity” is the title of one of the six chapters of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union adopted in 2000 and incorporated a decade later in the Lisbon Treaty. But the meaning of the word there is completely different from the one it has in what is perhaps the most famous single sentence in the history of the European institutions, a tirelessly quoted passage in the speech that launched the European adventure.

In his declaration of 9 May 1950, Robert Schuman said: 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.

What “solidarité” meant there, as in an old French usage now largely obsolete, is simply interdependence. No doubt inspired by Jean Monnet, the architect of the European construction, this sentence asserts that the interdependence between member states, created by piecemeal achievements, will keep prompting further steps towards a more integrated Europe. It thereby encapsulates what is often praised or denounced as the “Monnet method”.

But when we say that we act out of solidarity, surely we don’t mean that we act out of interdependence.

Indeed, but there is a connection. Interdependence tends to make solidarity, in that distinct sense, both more likely and more necessary. A brief glance at the origin of the word can shed light on this connection. Before spreading and being adapted into Italian, German, English and many other languages, the word “solidarité” started being used in French in its current sense from the middle of the 19th century.

In an influential book published in 1896 under the title Solidarité, the French political thinker and politician Léon Bourgeois referred to solidarity in nature and in society in the sense of interdependence: between the organs of a body, for example, or even between the stars. But he uses “solidarity” mostly in the sense in which we use it now, when we say that we express solidarity, or that we act out of solidarity or that there is a lack of solidarity. In his view, interdependence between human beings founds a moral duty to help each other.

Bourgeois was particularly fascinated by the work of his contemporary and compatriot Louis Pasteur, a path-breaking student of contagious diseases. More clearly than anything else, an epidemic instantiates “solidarity” understood as interdependence, and it calls for “solidarity”, understood as mutual help.

As illustrated daily in the last few months, such solidarity can be requested both from individuals – for example, solidarity with the sick or the vulnerable – and from states – for example, solidarity with the countries most badly hit by the pandemic, and the economic consequences suffered.

When individuals and states help other when they are in trouble, is this always out of solidarity? Could it not also be out of charity, or pity, or compassion?

Certainly, and this is where it gets tricky and philosophically interesting. It is striking that it is solidarity and not charity that is invoked when the young are asked to accept the lockdown in order to reduce the mortality of the elderly, or when Germany is asked to come to Italy’s rescue. There would be something demeaning, even humiliating about appealing for charity or pity. But this is not the case when appealing for solidarity.

Why not? The difference, I think, is that solidarity involves a form of reciprocity and hence of fundamental equality, though only a virtual one. It is because this reciprocity is only virtual that solidarity involves some voluntary sacrifice, some generosity. In the self-interested reciprocity of insurance, I help you now because one day I may need your help, and if I don’t help you now you will not help me when I need it. By contrast, when acting out of solidarity, what motivates us is not the probability of a future benefit for ourselves. It is rather identification with those one is helping.

Acting out of solidarity requires us to think, for example, if we are young, that we could have been old when the pandemic struck; or if we are German, that we could have been Italian; and that if the positions had been reversed, the others would have done for us what we are now expected to do for them.

How well a political entity is doing depends on how much it can count on solidarity among its citizens and among its territorial components. Hence the importance attached by nation states but also by the European Union to the strengthening of a common European identity, without which there can be no solidarity.

Because national identities are stronger today, it is easier to invoke solidarity, for example, when asking the French to “buy French” than when asking them to “buy Spanish” because Spain is in greater trouble than France. It is legitimate for European leaders to try to get European solidarity to prevail over national solidarity. We badly need more European solidarity, precisely because of our growing and irreversible interdependence. But there is a long way to go.

Is this then the sense in which the term “solidarity” is used in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights?

Not at all. What features under the heading “Solidarity” in the charter consists of a set of rights associated with our welfare states. Here, “solidarity” does not refer to a motive for individual or collective action, but to the organizing principle of the institutions that embody the so-called “European social model”, a model that is often presented by European leaders as the distinguishing feature of the European version of liberal democracy, as opposed to its North American version.

It can be viewed as a cold, solidified version of the warm, spontaneous solidarity that sometimes motivates individual and collective action, which it turns into a system of enforceable duties and rights. Contrary to the early forms of social assistance that appealed to the charity of the rich towards the poor, our national welfare states appeal to solidarity between equal citizens, each of whom is asked to assume that she could have been any other: it is on this egalitarian ground – not out pity or out of charity – that the sick, the elderly the disabled, and the unemployed are being helped by the various components of our welfare states, as they have been throughout this crisis.

A welfare state based on solidarity necessarily encompasses insurance but goes beyond it. We pride ourselves, for example, that irrespective of how much or how little citizens helped finance the public health care system through their taxes or social contributions, all of them, whether rich or poor, are equally entitled to its services.

So, solidarity is a great thing and the pandemic provided us with yet another demonstration?

Something like that can be said, but certainly not about solidarity in the first sense: worldwide interdependence, as we realize more than ever, can be a curse. Solidarity in the second sense – as a motive for action – is definitely better than selfishness. And it can even be moving, especially when it is less obvious. Solidarity is more moving when it drives a Fleming into helping a Walloon than when it drives him into helping another Fleming, or when it inspires a Dutchman to plead in favour of transferring financial help to the Greeks rather than to other Dutchmen.

But solidarity should not trump fairness. Suppose that a doctor is tempted, out of solidarity, to give a sick cousin, neighbour or colleague prior access to an overburdened intensive care unit: “You are one of us, and therefore I shall do for you what you would have done for me.” Making impersonal justice prevail over the duty of solidarity with other members of one’s group is nonetheless the right thing to do.

This also holds for solidarity in the third sense of an institutional principle. Of course, the institutions it inspires are great contributions to social justice. But social justice requires an equalization of opportunities beyond the boundaries of the communities bound by a strong common identity. And it does not reduce, as solidarity does, to helping people when they are in difficulty.

Social justice consists, more fundamentally, in distributing life chances in a fair way. A universal basic income, for example, is an important tool in the service of social justice, so defined. But it does not fit into a welfare state governed exclusively by the principle of solidarity any more than into one understood as the exercise of public charity.

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