Without the euro, Europe would be insignificant. Jean-Claude Juncker

In this together

If solidarity is to serve political change, it must be elevated to a normative goal and enforced as a principle of law and not as a matter of choice.

Since the eruption of the Eurozone crisis in late 2008, I – and many others – have been struggling with the comprehension, the origins and the manifestation of what seems to be this generation’s greatest political “ideal”: solidarity.

Solidarity is – in essence – a sense kindness and empathy, often combined with the strong political desire to alleviate others from suffering and to live in an altogether different world. By means of solidarity, we are told to feel kinship with Greeks, Palestinians, workers, women, Ebola patients and other persons altogether less fortunate.

But solidarity is also tricky and has massive limitations. A continued sense of solidarity quickly becomes irreconcilable with harsh facts, such as the unveiling of other people as scoundrels of evidence that they may have been partly responsible for their own grief. It requires immense persistence to empathize with people we are told are corrupt or irresponsibly, that send their own children into hell and hardship.

A toxic division

Calling what went down in Europe before, during, and after the crisis, a manifestation of solidarity is not “a stretch” but a fallacy. Since the crisis, Europe has been shaped by the interests of single member states and their desire to cling to familiar economic dogma. All the while showing few signs of greater social cohesion or community. On the contrary, bailouts and other crisis mechanisms have created a toxic division of Europe into the charitable lender states in the North and receivers in the South, making political equality and real solidarity between them impossible.

Solidarity is most likely to occur only amongst equals. According to Èmile Durkheim, “cohesion and integration comes from the homogeneity of individuals: people feel connected through similar work, education and religious training, and lifestyle, which is often based on the kinship ties of familiar networks.” Where people are not equal, apparent gestured of “kindness” are most often not expressions of solidarity, but of something entirely different: charity.

But even amongst equals, solidarity cannot be guaranteed. The German Federal States of Bavaria, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg have repeatedly brought legal actions against the monetary transfers (the so-called Länderfinanzausgleich) from the South to the East and North of Germany. They were shut down by the law that guarantees equal opportunities to citizen and reaches beyond the borders of Federal States.

If solidarity is to serve as a justification for long-term and sustainable political change, it must be elevated to a normative goal and enforced as a principle of law and not as a matter of choice that can be refuted by a couple of people’s true sentiments.

Mercy alone won’t do

Europe was not created as a Union of heartfelt and charitable sentiments but as a Union of rights. We don’t think of women being able to vote, Afro-Americans being released from slavery or gays being allowed to marry as an act of kindness or solidarity, but as a natural consequence of their equality and rights as human beings. Why should the same not hold true for basic economic freedoms and equal chances to economic prosperity? Economies and societies cannot function without a distribution of welfare and rights and equality cannot be guaranteed. This could easily be achieved by common policies or, to bring in an entirely outrageous suggestion, a common European income tax.

A common identity, empathy, kindness and ultimately solidarity are important things, but if we want to build a common Europe or guarantee fundamental rights and equality around the globe, we cannot do this on the basis of mercy alone.

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