Age of ‘permacrisis’ teaches EU that solidarity is arduous but worth it

Solidarity is often hailed in EU circles as a value underpinning the bloc. In its preamble, the treaty of the EU states that its members will strive to deepen the bond among themselves. But the wrangling over how to organise in case Russia cuts off gas supplies shows solidarity is not a given.

The moment the European Commission proposed a reduction of 15 per cent in gas use across the bloc — to help cope with winter rationing in vulnerable states such as Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — countries more confident of being able to cushion the blow cried foul. Unsympathetic words were aimed at Berlin, whose decision to rely heavily on Moscow for its fuel and shut its nuclear reactors now appears ill-advised. What has ensued is a compromise among EU governments, which keeps the headline energy reduction target and the idea that spare gas should be shared with those in need, but which also includes so many opt-outs that the real world outcome is unclear.

Pessimists and sceptics have concluded this is more evidence that EU solidarity is an empty concept, and that the bloc will never be much more than a market for goods and services. Optimists point to EU states’ commitment to making their best efforts to help gas-starved members through bilateral agreements when the worst of the energy crisis unfolds.

The reality is that with each new shock, the EU is progressing along the arduous road to a more cohesive and collective approach. “The EU has gone through a lot of crises in a short period of time, there is a lot to learn, a lot to absorb,” says Maria Demertzis, interim director of Brussels-based think-tank Bruegel.

To be sure, solidarity is typically not the first reaction from EU capitals. The bloc did not cover itself in glory in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic either, when some of its members including Germany imposed export bans on medical supplies. In 2015, a system to ensure that migrants from war-torn Syria were distributed across the bloc, to ease pressure on frontline Mediterranean states, largely failed. It took time — and for Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain much economic hardship — to stem the eurozone debt crisis.

But it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. EU solidarity is and will remain “second-order”, meaning it comes after what binds a nation, wrote Sophie Pornschlegel, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, in a 2021 paper. It is “based on reciprocity and self-interest,” concurs Anke Hassel, Professor of Public Policy at the Hertie School in Berlin. “There is always a reluctance, at first, to chip in.”

“The concept of solidarity is always evoked in crises, usually by a member state that needs help,” says Hassel. “They pull this card and then the questions come: is this a problem they caused themselves, can they deal with it themselves? Solidarity only happens if the problem of one member state is so large that it will impact the others.”

Germany, whose economy could contract as much as 3 per cent if Russia stops its gas exports, is now in the humbling position of having to ask for solidarity. Predictably, the criticism it has faced for its energy choices is tinged with resentment rooted in the uncompromising way Berlin handled the fate of Greece and other debt-laden southern states during the eurozone crisis.

“These were growing pains even if the Greeks were on the receiving end of it,” says Demertzis, who is Greek herself. “It turns out Germany’s energy policy choice is not helpful, but if Germany goes into a recession, the whole of the EU will follow.”

And more than once the EU has also surprised by its ability to rise to the occasion. The bloc has imposed sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Covid-19 vaccine procurement and the €800bn post-pandemic recovery fund are other powerful examples. But it also points to a fundamental weakness: a lot hinges on the political will of EU leaders, and therefore on who is in power, Pornschlegel says. “In this permacrisis age, we don’t necessarily put in place permanent cohesion mechanisms.”

Hassel is more optimistic. “The world has become so much more interdependent, these moments of solidarity happen more frequently, and as they do, the solidarity packages in the EU will become more substantial,” she says. “It will be a gradual process.”

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