Solidarity in Europe

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Solidarity in Europe

Once, Poles went out to overturn their government with the rallying cry that “There is no freedom without solidarity”. Now, Poland has its freedom – and no rallying cries are needed. The trade union Solidarity still exists, but it is no longer the basis of Poland’s freedom. Solidarity as an idea, however, will continue to influence politics, in Poland as in the rest of Europe. We need a firmer idea ofSolidarity in Europe.

Soon the European Union will comprise 25 member states, and it might include 30 by 2010. It will change its nature in the process. On what basis will this large community of states live together? Today, European countries are more alike than they have been for 200 years, with nearly all being democracies and market economies. But although the shared values of freedom, democracy and market economics are necessary conditions for harmonious co-existence in the EU, they are not sufficient. The Union needs solidarity as well.

The European Union needs to face up tothree major challengesin the coming years, and all will require solidarity. The first iseconomic disparities. The enlarged European Union will face huge income differentials between both countries and regions. In the current EU, GDP per capita averages more than 20,500 euros, but the Polish average is only a little over 8,000 euros. It is true that other countries have higher averages than Poland, and that Slovenia and the Czech Republic have just overtaken Greece, the poorest EU member state. But the basic problem persists, that a number of relatively poor countries will join not only the institutions, but also the single market and the common policies of the comparatively wealthy EU.

In principle, the EU’s common policies are meant to address precisely this problem of disparities – the common budget provides aid to poor regions and farmers. However, more than half of this budget is spent on agricultural subsidies that often go to the richer farmers, and which distort fair competition. This policy is no longer justified, but in the budget battles between the different member-states, the basic objectives of agricultural policy have receded out of sight. Instead of a policy that fosters economic competitiveness, the EU has a cover-up for social security to farmers. Many people in Europe find it difficult to understand why farmers should be singled out as the one social group to receive direct aid from Brussels. Why does taxpayers’ solidarity to extend to farmers but not to steelworkers, coalminers or small shop-owners?

The EU cannot put off major changes to its agriculture policy much longer, because of enlargement and also world trade negotiations and consumer opposition to industrialised faming. The next few years thus offer a good opportunity to rethink the common agricultural policy, and how to achieve better its aims and objectives.

With income differentials growing after enlargement, Europeans will also have to re-think the objectives of the structural and cohesion funds. Whom do we want to help? It would be easy to argue that only states with less than say 70% of the EU’s average GDP could receive structural funds. Poland would then qualify. But regional disparities in some of the EU’s new member states will be vast and unemployment rates will vary tremendously. In some regions of Poland – for example, Warsaw – the average GDP is high and it would be absurd to maintain that an investment in Warsaw would be an investment in the poorest regions in Europe. If the structural funds are an instrument for equalising income levels, some regions in the new member states ought to be excluded. Overall, the EU needs to focus its regional aid on the poorest regions of the enlarged Union, regardless of what country they lie in.

The second challenge facing Europe is < strong>changing conceptions of citizenship and identity. Many member states of the current EU contain significant immigrant populations. In Britain and in the Netherlands, migrants have been integrated largely successfully; but even there, tensions remain, as race riots in the north of England showed last summer. Moreover, immigration and citizenship issues have risen up the political agenda this year as populist right-wing parties have exploited them for political gain in France, Austria, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. In Germany, the question of whether ‘guest workers’ should be given German citizenship divided the political class in 1999, and the search for a new immigration law has still not been concluded.

Europe is experiencing falling birth rates, so it will need substantial immigration in order to have enough young workers to support the economy and to pay the pensions of the ageing population. Similar processes are at work in the applicant countries which will soon join the EU. Few realise it today, but Eastern Europe will soon turn into a region of net immigration. Today, trade unions in Germany and Austria fear that labour migration in the wake of EU enlargement will cost jobs in the current EU. In 5-8 years, these fears will be long gone.

Enlargement, combined with demographic and social changes, also calls into question who is European – raising identity questions. After enlargement, the EU will have new neighbours, countries which are poorer than the existing EU. People in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia regard themselves as European, and soon they will be neighbours of the EU. But many EU citizens have little sense of solidarity with their neighbours who need help to achieve stability and greater prosperity. The danger is that a bigger Union might become a ‘Fortress Europe’, if the EU’s border policies increase the isolation of the countries left outside, without solidarity policies to help integrate them into the rest of Europe.

The third challenge isfinding a balance between economic competitiveness and social cohesion. Since 1989, income gaps in all European countries have widened. The only way that European countries can ensure their prosperity in the long run is if they work together to develop economies that can cope with international competition. Good economic policy is good social policy, and vice-versa. But the EU can help in this task by promoting better economic governance in the member-states – by benchmarking their progress in achieving economic reform – and by making sure that the single market maintains a level playing-field for all member-states.

Solidarity refers to a sense of togetherness, as well as to the practice of helping one another. Without a sense of common purpose, people are unwilling to come to one another’s aid. The wealthier European countries are not going to help the poorer ones only out idealism, but they should do so through a recognition that their self-interest is best served by pursuing common goals. The EU was created because the people living on this crowded continent have to work together and their destinies are intertwined. Solidarity is about recognising that the world is a big and complex place, and Europe a rather small part of it. This leads us to the following conclusions:

  • In the negotiations for the EU’s next budgetary period from 2007 onwards, the member-states – including Poland – should think more objectively about what future policies the enlarged EU will need. They should not focus on past precedents for spending, but instead establish aset of policy goalsto address the new challenges of economic and social cohesion after enlargement.
  • Solidarity is not a one-way street. The poorer EU member states should not define solidarity in Europe as just “the rich helping the poor”. They need to ask themselves instead what they can contribute too, and that means developing the capacity to use EU aid sensibly . Ireland and Portugal have spent EU money wisely, and their economies have benefited, whereas Greece for years failed to use EU funds to modernise its economy. Eastern Europe should learn from their successes and failures to make good use of EU money.
  • Demographic change in Europe is already happening, andimmigration will be neededto ensure our economies can continue to grow. Europe’s political leaders need to explain to their publics that immigration is in their interests. Equally, they need to establish common EU policies to ensure that there are legal routes of managed migration, to halt the growth in people-trafficking and to ensure that immigrants who become residents are integrated into society and not socially excluded.
  • Solidarity starts at home. All European countries are trying to find the right balance between economic competitiveness and social cohesion. They are facing similar policy challenges in reforming pensions, welfare benefits and healthcare. These policies are best managed at national level rather than through the EU’s institutions, but the Union can help countries to benefit from comparing their experiences and sharing best practice.

In the 1950s, the integration of Western Europe was spurred on by the experience of the war and the Communist threat. Today, war is a distant memory to most Europeans and there is no Communist threat. The peoples of Europe need a different reason to pull together. That reason is our common destiny. During the Cold War, problems on one part of the continent could be isolated from rest because border guards stopped people from moving, and economic contacts were limited by trade barriers and mutual suspicion. But now the frontiers are more open and the economies are more integrated. War, instability and poverty in one part of the continent have an effect on all the rest. The only way each country can ensure the security and prosperity of its citizens is to work with all its neighbours in a spirit of solidarity.


Heather Grabbeis Research Director at the Centre for European Reform in London.Henning Tewesis Director of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Poland.

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