hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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covid-19 and european solidarity

The attempts to counter the spread of the coronavirus have serious social and economic consequences, more serious than the financial crisis of 2008. These also put a strain on the relations within the European Union. The EU still seems to be a ‘good weather’ endeavour. As long as prosperity lasts, we all do joyfully our own little thing; once the pressure rises, we call for joint action –  we loudly call for solidarity, which means in the EU that not I, but others have to do something. What should we do then? Time for something like a Marshall Plan, as Philippe Legrain suggests in Project Syndicat?

Where was solidarity when covid-19 began its grand tour? Everyone on its own, no coordination, at most pointing at other countries that they did not do enough, because everyone holds their own policy to be the best answer. That’s a bit how we traditionally behave. The European Union is still far from recognizing what ‘solidarity’ means. Already in the Laken Declaration (2001), the European Commission complained about the mood in which individual countries take pride in their own competence when a ruling decided in ‘Brussels’ was favourable for their own interests, but blamed ‘Brussels’ when it was less advantageous. And still today, the EU acts like a bunch of spoiled brats. When the weather is good, we take ‘Brussels’ for granted, when the clouds pack together, we blame ‘Brussels’ and the other countries.

I’ll immediately admit that we have made good progress in leaving behind this caricature; but the basics are still present. During the negotiations for support for those countries that are severely hit by the covid-19 pandemic, I found the cry for solidarity an example of extreme bullying. Since the Euro rolled into our wallets, solidarity has not been highly exercised. The monetary and budget rules that hang together with the euro, and that are agreed to by the participating countries, have time and again been swept aside for selfish reasons. In the face of covid-19, European countries closed the borders for medical equipment and each country designed its own policy of lock-down and closing borders.

Solidarity is an act of freedom and freedom is obeying the rules we have written yourself. Solidarity is a mutual relationship between someone in need of solidarity, and someone who shows solidarity. It always presupposes some relationship or connection between the two involved. Solidarity can be very wide and unspecific, such as towards victims of a natural disaster elsewhere. It can be more selective such as solidarity with a social-economic class, such as in the world-wide labour movement. It is unquestioned and unconditional within the bonds of one’s own family.

Obligation and entitlement are the mediums along which solidarity is realized: we feel an obligation towards someone to show solidarity, and someone might feel entitled that solidarity is shown to him or her. As solidarity is part of a relationship between people, the closer and more elaborate this relationship is, the more specific and reciprocal our entitlements and obligations become. When there is a tsunami in South-East Asia, sending goods and money as free gifts is the proper reaction. Within the family the mutual obligations of solidarity can be much more specific: if you do not do your part in our common home, tidying up your room, for example, you cannot go with your friend to Disneyland, for which his parents so kindly invited you.

There are no straightforward entitlements when one wants to call for solidarity. Unconditional solidarity is commonly called charity. It is more blessed to give, but it is much more difficult to receive, especially when pride stands in the way. Within a relationship such as the EU where rules and agreements govern, there are no free rides or piggy backing on others. Nobody is to blame for circumstances outside their control, such as a pandemic, but nobody is entitled to the relative fortune of another party which has succeeded in having healthy finances as a result of painful policies in times of a crisis which globally hit all members. There is dignity in being worthy to receive.

Being told that one first has to change one’s financial policies when one asks for far-reaching structural solutions for a persistent individual problem is not nice at a time of crisis, but honestly, it will never be a good time.[*] Voices in countries that have been faced with implementing necessary economic reforms have been contemplating an exit from the EU for the last 2 years or so. Some have walked to the till of China who offers to invest in infrastructural projects. All poor people know about the viciousness of the pawnbroker and loan shark in the High Street. Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Malaysia, Maldives, and Sierra Leone have experienced already that the presents China gives are part of a ‘debt trap diplomacy’.[**] Greece and Italy might follow shortly …

The idea of a Marshall Plan which offers grants for medical needs and economic recovery, would be an answer to the Dutch fear that with Eurobonds or the ESM, the healthy (Euro-) countries would end up in the financial Intensive Care as well. It would also be softer for the pride of those countries that do not want any charity-money. In the meantime, we together could maybe think of more binding agreements and most of all, stop fooling around and doing what is in our own selfish interest. Some might think: “The Lord will provide,” but Brussels is not The Lord. Brussels is just ‘us’, and we all have to provide for keeping up our common future.[***]


[*] And it never has been, … though, Wopke Hoekstra wondered why countries had not made provisions for economic hardship and as I read in the newspaper Trouw, prime minister Bruno Le Maire has suggested that France should start rethinking its economic model to bring down its debt of 100%, more in line with the spirit of Hoekstra’s ideas.

[**] See the interview with Meine Pieter van Dijk in Letter en Geest/Trouw, 11 april 2020, p. 74 (not available online).

[***] Just a footnote: you might think of The Netherlands as a tax-avoidance haven, even heaven. I agree completely that this is a disgrace and should be ended, yesterday. Just a shame that it is endorsed by companies such as Airbus SE, Giovanni Agnelli BV, Exor NV, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

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