The evidence shows that citizens are willing to exhibit more European solidarity than has so far been appreciated or tested.
Since 2010, the European Union has found itself in one of the greatest concatenations of crises since its emergence. The economic crisis, the associated eurozone crisis and the sovereign-debt crisis experienced by some of its members, as well as the refugee crisis stemming from desperation beyond the EU’s borders, have all challenged the strength of European solidarity. Many politicians and political scientists claim this is poorly developed and is buckling further under pressure. But is it really true that citizens reject European solidarity?
In a recent monograph we assessed this empirically. By European solidarity, we mean its extension beyond one’s own nation-state: recipients of solidarity are other EU countries or citizens living in another EU country.
We distinguish four domains of European solidarity. First, fiscal solidarity is defined as citizens’ willingness to support indebted European countries financially. Secondly, welfare-state solidarity is their willingness to support those in need—the unemployed, the sick, the elderly—regardless of where they live in the EU and to reduce inequality between rich and poor people in Europe. Thirdly, we define territorial solidarity as citizens’ willingness to reduce inequality between poor and rich EU countries. Finally, the refugee crisis has raised two questions—of external solidarity, defined as support for EU member states granting asylum to refugees, and internal solidarity, or the willingness to support burden-sharing among the member states.
For each domain we examined whether the majority of all Europeans, and a majority in each European country, supported the idea of European solidarity and whether Europe constituted a space of solidarity distinguishable from the global and the national.
Our survey, conducted in 13 EU countries in 2016, revealed quite surprising findings. Overall, Europe’s citizens exhibit notably stronger solidarity with citizens of other EU countries and with other EU states than many social scientists and politicians—particularly from the Eurosceptic camp—have presumed so far.
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In terms of fiscal solidarity, two thirds of respondents were willing to give emergency aid to EU crisis countries. While differences in approval among the 13 countries were apparent, a majority in all were in favour of European fiscal solidarity. European solidarity is somewhat less than towards crisis regions within one’s own state but considerably more than towards crisis countries not part of the EU.
Regarding welfare-state solidarity, at least two thirds of respondents approved of support for fellow Europeans at risk and the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor people across the EU. Differences in approval by country were rather small. Although national welfare-state institutions remained the first focus of respondents, differences between the two territorial spaces—domestic and European—were negligible.
As to territorial solidarity, more than 70 per cent of respondents were in favour of reducing spatial differences among EU member states. Support was only slightly smaller than for equalisation measures within the nation-state, whereas a global redistribution scheme would barely find majority support.
Complex and differentiated
Regarding refugee solidarity, a more complex and differentiated picture emerges. We found strong differences among countries, although the overall approval rate for accepting refugees in Europe attained a two-thirds majority. Most citizens in Cyprus and in the three Visegrád countries surveyed (Poland, Slovakia and Hungary) were not willing to grant refugees the right to stay in Europe if they were persecuted because of a Muslim affiliation.
A similar picture was apparent when it came to internal solidarity. Whilst respondents in all western- and southern-European countries supported the idea that refugees should be distributed equally among the member states, three quarters of Polish, Hungarian and Slovakian citizens rejected this.
Of all the crises which the EU faces, the refugee crisis thus challenges European solidarity the most. Overall, however, our results do not support the presumption, formulated by conservatives, Eurosceptics and even some left-leaning pundits, that the majority of citizens would veto the institutionalisation of European solidarity. In fact, the evidence provides encouragement for European elites to drive forward the European project.
Jürgen Gerhards is professor of sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin. His research interests include comparative cultural sociology and the sociology of European integration. Holger Lengfeld is professor of sociology at Leipzig University. His research focuses on social stratification, inequality and European social integration.