Inside Story

European solidarity

Our Hamburg-based correspondent scrutinises a much-used term, draws attention to deadly policies and practices, and ends on an optimistic note

Klaus Neumann Hamburg 3 December 2022 5457 words

Step by step: Robert Schuman (second from left) with fellow founders of the European Union (from left) Alcide De Gasperi, Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer, memorialised at Scy-Chazelle in France. Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP via Getty Images

Just last week my local paper told the story of two twenty-six-year-old women who had fled Ukraine earlier this year and are now happily living in a small village near Hamburg and working in a bank. The fact that one of them is a trained vet and isn’t fluent in German doesn’t seem to be a problem. Their lucky break came when they were exchanging Ukrainian hryvnia for euros soon after their arrival and encountered a man whose partner happened to be from Ukraine.

A couple of days later, a nineteen-year-old from Afghanistan was reported to have badly hurt himself when he tried to climb out of a fifth-floor window of a reception centre for asylum seekers. He had panicked at around 3am when police came to his room to deport him to Croatia, where he had first entered the European Union. His fear may well have originated in experiences he had while passing through that country on the so-called Balkan route from Greece to Germany.

All three people — the two young women from Ukraine and the young man from Afghanistan — have sought refuge in Germany from countries ravaged by war. But while the women are allowed to remain in Germany until at least the end of 2023 without applying for asylum, the nineteen-year-old is prohibited even from seeking protection here. The women are employed and live in private accommodation; the young man was put up, with some 370 others, in a hostel run on behalf of the city of Hamburg.

In both cases, the European Union uses the same term, “solidarity,” to frame its response. Solidarity means that millions of Ukrainians have been allowed to settle temporarily in the twenty-seven EU member countries, and it is also the key concept underlying the EU’s common policy on asylum. But solidarity isn’t the exclusive preserve of the EU: activists campaigning against the deportation of asylum seekers have also assured the young man from Afghanistan of their solidarity.

Over the two centuries since it was first used, the English term solidarity has been “endlessly pliant,” in the words of the Swedish historian of ideas Sven-Eric Liedman. Are we perhaps talking about different kinds of solidarity here that have nothing to do with each other? Not quite. Bear with me, while I take you on a tour of European solidarity.

Solidarity is a buzzword in and around the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. A search of the European Commission’s official website, for instance, yields more than 40,000 hits for the term, and almost 4000 for the more specific “European solidarity.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise, for solidarity has long been deemed a distinguishing attribute of the European project.

The term features more than a dozen times in the Treaty on European Union, which underwrites EU law. In Article 2, the treaty refers to the EU’s foundational values of “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” “These values,” adds the article, “are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

Another key document, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, goes further. In its preamble it lists solidarity as one of four “indivisible, universal values” on which the EU has been founded (the others being human dignity, freedom and equality). The charter helps illuminate the kind of solidarity the drafters of the Treaty on European Union had in mind: the twelve articles in its “Title IV: Solidarity” deal with things like healthcare, workers’ entitlements and social security — that is, with social and economic rather than civil and political rights.

The EU also prides itself on extending its solidarity to other, less fortunate nations. In recent months, Ukraine has been a prominent recipient of European solidarity, and so too have the countries most affected by climate change. At the conclusion of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen declared the conference to have “opened a new chapter on financing loss and damage” — a reference to Europe’s support for a fund to mitigate the impact of climate change — “and laid the foundations for a new method for solidarity between those in need and those in a position to help.”

Von der Leyen’s rhetoric was echoed by governments that strongly identify with the European project. German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said that “Team Germany” had travelled to Egypt to campaign “for more solidarity with the most vulnerable states.” The EU would like to be seen internationally as a “normative superpower,” a major player whose actions are informed by ethical considerations. Affording solidarity to the weak and poor is as much the result of these considerations as are criticism, censorship and punishment of nation-states whose performance runs counter to the norms and values embraced by the EU.

More important for the EU’s identity than solidarity of, among or for its residents — or solidarity with climate-affected nations or war-torn Ukraine — is the solidarity EU member states extend towards each other. Here the EU’s rhetoric has been more innovative, applying to nation-states a concept that has been more commonly used, as it is in Title V of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, to characterise relationships involving individuals.

References to such intra-EU solidarity appear in foundational texts from the 1950s. One of them — the May 1950 Schuman Declaration, incidentally published on the EU’s website under the heading “70 Years of Solidarity” — is French foreign minister Robert Schuman’s proposal for the EU’s earliest forerunner, a coal and steel community comprising France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Europe, Schumann said, would be “built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

Schuman’s idea was picked up the following year in the preamble of the treaty establishing that community, which recognises that “Europe can be built only through practical achievements which will first of all create real solidarity.”

One apparent expression of the solidarity principle is the EU’s system of transfer payments from affluent to poor members. Croatia and Lithuania receive payments amounting to more than 4 per cent of their respective gross domestic products, and Hungary, Greece and Latvia each receive the equivalent of around 3.5 per cent of GDP. Political figures in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere might complain that tens of billions of euros are lavished each year on poor cousins in eastern and southeastern Europe — conveniently ignoring the fact that the payments amount to less than half a per cent of the GDP of wealthy member countries — but the system is nevertheless working well.

But those payments don’t prove that the solidarity principle governs relations between member states. To understand how much heed is paid to the principle, we need to look beyond the EU’s routine budget negotiations to what happens in times of crisis.

When Greece was facing national bankruptcy during the eurozone crisis, it expected countries like Germany to cancel its debts (in much the same way as German debts had been cancelled in 1953). But the Tsipras government’s understanding of solidarity couldn’t easily be reconciled with the kind of solidarity promoted by the governments in Berlin, Paris or The Hague. Where the Greeks saw European solidarity as tantamount to debt reduction, the governments of affluent European countries insisted that solidarity involved a corresponding duty — namely, substantial cuts to the Greek budget. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble famously declared that solidarity was not a one-way street.

When Schäuble’s views eventually prevailed, I wrote in Inside Story that the outcome was “appallingly bad” not just for Greece but also for Europe. I stand by that assessment, not least because the eurozone crisis demonstrated that any aspiration the EU’s leaders may have had for the “real solidarity” envisaged by its founders remained just that: an aspiration. It did not translate into action. Schuman had a valid point when he suggested that inter-state solidarity doesn’t miraculously materialise but rather is created by means of “concrete achievements.”

Solidarity among member states is not just about money. It is also about sharing other resources — medicines and intensive care beds during the Covid pandemic, for example. Here, too, member states’ performance has rarely matched their lofty rhetoric. During the early days of the pandemic, Germany and France were roundly and for good reason condemned for imposing export bans rather than sharing their (admittedly meagre) supplies of masks and ventilators.

Sharing electricity or fossil fuels during the current energy crisis could also be evidence of solidarity among member states. But will they really be prepared to help each other out during winter rather than reserve resources for their own use? In Germany, the Scholz government recently created a national €200 billion rescue shield to protect businesses and households from rising energy costs. It could have pushed instead for a European emergency fund that would have extended benefits much more widely (though not as generously as the German subsidies). Its decision indicates how national governments will react if freezing temperatures stretch Europe’s capacity to avoid power cuts, keep industries running, and heat residential and public buildings.

The most controversial aspect of European solidarity comes in Title V of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, headed “Area of Freedom, Security and Justice.” Article 67(2) stipulates that the EU “shall ensure the absence of internal border controls for persons and shall frame a common policy on asylum, immigration and external border control, based on solidarity between Member States, which is fair towards third-country nationals.” The role of solidarity is further emphasised in Article 80: “The policies of the Union… and their implementation shall be governed by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, including its financial implications, between the Member States.”

Burden-sharing of this kind is not a new idea. Back in 1950 France suggested that the UN Refugee Convention should include the following provision: “In a spirit of international solidarity, the High Contracting Parties shall take into consideration the burden assumed by the countries having first admitted or granted temporary asylum to refugees, and facilitate the permanent settlement of the latter, more especially by relaxation of the procedure for admission.” The proposal was rejected not so much because other delegations objected to burden-sharing but because they weren’t convinced that a reference to the spirit of international solidarity was necessary. One delegate argued that the convention’s effectiveness would obviously “depend on the good will and the spirit of solidarity of the signatory States.”

Solidarity eventually appeared in the 1967 UN Declaration on Territorial Asylum (which unfortunately is barely remembered today). Article 2(2) reads: “Where a State finds difficulty in granting or continuing to grant asylum, States… shall consider, in a spirit of international solidarity, appropriate measures to lighten the burden on that State.” Subsequent references to solidarity appear in statements issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as well as in the 2018 Global Compacts on Refugees and for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

UN-level attempts to lighten the burden of countries that host a disproportionately high number of asylum seekers have largely failed, at least in the past forty years. Despite its continuing emphasis on the principle of solidarity, the EU hasn’t done any better. In fact, it could be argued that its common policy on asylum has flown in the face of its rhetorical commitment to that principle.

The cornerstone of the EU’s asylum policy from 2003 to 2013 was the Dublin II Regulation. It provided for protection claims to be assessed in the first EU member state an asylum seeker entered. When the EU adopted the regulation, asylum numbers not only appeared manageable but were also on a downward trajectory. When irregular arrivals picked up again in 2008, EU members that served as entry points for asylum seekers — particularly if they bordered the Mediterranean — began complaining about a system that made them responsible for the majority of new arrivals. The criticism intensified as the number of protection claims skyrocketed in the early 2010s.

The EU tinkered with its asylum policy in 2013, replacing the existing legal framework with the Dublin III Regulation. The principle underlying its predecessor remained untouched. But the regulation became increasingly dysfunctional. Italy and Greece, for example, routinely allowed asylum seekers to pass through without registering their identities. Countries in the north of Europe were compelled to stop transferring asylum seekers back to Greece, even if it could be proven that they had entered the EU via that country, because refugees, particularly children, were not afforded adequate protection there.

During the influx of refugees in 2015–16, some central and northern European members — particularly Germany, Austria, Sweden and Finland — relieved the pressure on Greece and Italy by welcoming asylum seekers who had entered the EU from the Turkish mainland (via Greek islands in the northern Aegean) or from North Africa. Germany probably did so because Angela Merkel’s government naively expected that other countries, impressed by its example, would extend their solidarity in turn to Germany.

At the same time, some countries that had benefited from the Dublin regulations acknowledged that Italy, Malta and Greece were barely able — and couldn’t be expected — to cope with the large number of arrivals from across the sea. They advocated a new mechanism whereby asylum seekers would be distributed across the EU. But the so-called Visegrád group — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic — supported at times by other EU members in eastern and southeastern Europe, demanded “flexible solidarity” and successfully objected to mandatory relocation.

Even the equitable distribution of relatively small numbers of people from Italy and Greece largely failed. Some member states simply refused to accommodate any asylum seekers who had first entered the EU elsewhere.

Since then the two EU heavyweights, France and Germany, have led a push for a mechanism to share the burden of processing and caring for asylum seekers equitably. This would involve either allocating each country a share of irregular arrivals depending on its capacity and size, or directing compensatory payments from countries unwilling to accommodate asylum seekers to those that are. Schemes that would have enabled relocations from countries of first asylum were welcomed, naturally enough, by the “Med 5” (Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Greece and Spain).

Because the Visegrád 4, among others, wouldn’t budge, France and Germany resorted to promoting voluntary arrangements. Finland brokered an agreement between Malta, Italy, France and Germany in 2019 covering migrants rescued by private search-and-rescue missions in the central Mediterranean. In their joint declaration of intent, the four countries pledged to set up a “more predictable and efficient temporary solidarity mechanism.” But that mechanism has not functioned well: each time migrants are rescued in the Mediterranean, the EU member states still argue over who will take responsibility for them.

In 2020, the European Commission proposed a new Pact on Migration and Asylum designed to effect a “fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity.” Rather than replacing the Dublin Regulation with a bold new scheme, the pact envisages a series of incremental steps. Implementation once again relied on the goodwill of all member states, and when Poland and Hungary, in particular, strongly resisted any moves towards enforced solidarity the French government once more proposed a voluntary mechanism.

In June this year, the end of its presidency approaching, France brokered an agreement signed by eighteen of the twenty-three EU member states, as well as Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, which committed signatories to a “voluntary, simple and predictable solidarity mechanism” that would provide the Med 5 “with needs-based assistance” from other member countries “complementary to European support, by offering relocations (the preferred method of solidarity) and financial contributions.” While some of the signatories accepted asylum seekers who landed in Italy, others simply ignored the pledge they made.

The latest move by the European Commission has been a twenty-point Action Plan for the Central Mediterranean. It is largely the result of lobbying, if not blackmail, by the new Italian government, which would like to prevent any irregularised migrants from making landfall in Italy (and deport many of those already living in Italy). This plan is unlikely, though, to lead to a new common policy on asylum to replace the Dublin Regulation.

In the meantime, irregularised migrants keep breaching the EU’s external borders, with more than 90,000 having arrived in Italy alone so far this year. National immigration authorities keep trying to deport asylum seekers like the nineteen-year-old from Afghanistan to where they first set foot in the EU. According to the Hamburg state government, twenty-nine people were deported from Hamburg to other EU countries in the third quarter of this year, in line with the Dublin Regulation. These deportations tie up scarce resources and cause much anguish.

As more asylum seekers have breached Europe’s southern maritime borders it has become all too obvious that the Dublin Regulation is not “based on solidarity between Member States” but privileges the interests of some EU members over those of others. In other words, it shields central and northern European member states from irregularised migration. Because the likes of Poland and Hungary rejected a mandatory distribution mechanism — advocated by the European Commission, the Med 5 and some EU members in central and northern Europe — the EU’s response has been to try to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Europe in the first place.

In the course of making its external borders increasingly impenetrable, the EU has disregarded the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union’s stipulation that a common asylum policy must be fair towards third-country nationals. Not only has the much-evoked principle of solidarity among member states proven to be little more than a rhetorical gesture, but the violence of its border regime has made a mockery of the EU’s self-declared ambition to stand up for human rights worldwide. There is no greater hypocrite than the winner of the 2012 Nobel peace prize.

In some cases, the EU is paying third parties to keep irregularised migrants away from Europe. Thus Italy and the EU have funded Libyan militias to operate a “coastguard” charged with intercepting migrants and confining them to Libya’s notorious detention centres, which German diplomats once likened to concentration camps.

In other cases, the EU turns a blind eye when its members flout national and EU laws by pushing migrants back across the border, as has been happening in at least half a dozen EU countries. In June, for example, when hundreds of migrants tried to climb over the border fortifications separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco, at least twenty-seven died and many of those who had managed to enter Spanish territory were returned to Morocco without being allowed to lodge a protection claim.

Or, to give another example, Latvia declared a state of emergency at its border with Belarus in August, allowing the government to restrict the movement of journalists and NGO representatives. Erik Marquardt, a Greens member of the European parliament, explains why the Latvian authorities don’t welcome monitors:

A typical horror trip in the limbo of the border region looks like this: The asylum seekers try to cross the green border through the forest to Latvian territory to apply for asylum. On Latvian territory they are picked up by border guards and taken to unregistered tent camps somewhere in the forest, far away from civil society, press and NGOs. Here… commandos harass, beat and abuse the detainees. They use batons and stun guns — sometimes even on their genitals. Their cell phones and valuables are taken from them. The shelter seekers have to sleep overnight in a tent in the middle of the forest, sometimes outdoors, at up to –20 degrees. The commandos also take away their lighters, the only way to make a fire to warm themselves against the cold temperatures and to protect themselves against wolves and bears. Often in the early morning hours, the refugees are bussed back to the border with Belarus and have to walk the rest of the way back through the forest.

Similar incidents have taken place at the borders between Croatia and Bosnia, and between Poland and Belarus. In the Turkish–Bulgarian borderlands — the setting of Haider Rashid’s haunting feature film Europa, which premiered to much acclaim last year at Cannes — migrants have to contend not only with zealous border guards but also with vigilantes.

But the Greek coastguard is probably most notorious for violating the rights of irregularised migrants. Over a two-year period from February 2020 until February 2022, a Forensic Architecture research team documented 1018 “drift-backs” in the Aegean Sea involving 27,464 people. Migrants were prevented from landing in Greece and then towed out to sea to a spot from where currents, waves and winds are likely to take them back to Turkish territorial waters. According to the researchers, this sometimes-lethal method is designed to “provide a measure of deniability for those perpetrators, shielding them from accountability.”

The EU has regularly condoned practices that are illegal under international human rights and refugee law. In its defence, it often maintains that it is merely protecting itself against acts of hybrid warfare perpetrated by the likes of the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Try telling that to migrants who are drowning or freezing to death at the European border.

But intra-EU solidarity on asylum is working in one sense: member states cover for each other when they violate the Charter of Fundamental Rights in their “defence” of the EU’s external border. The European Commission, while supposedly still committed to its 2020 Pact on Migration and Asylum, has in some instances been turning a blind eye and in others actively encouraging violators — as happened in March 2020, when von der Leyen praised Greece for “being our European ασπίδα,” or shield.

It should be some consolation that the securitisation of the EU’s external borders, and the violence this entails, is contested by other European institutions. The European parliament — and particularly the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, led by the indomitable Juan Fernando López Aguilar — has frequently spoken out against human rights violations at the borders and often put itself on a collision course with the European Commission and Frontex, the European border agency. But the parliament’s powers are limited.

The European courts have also ruled against the likes of Hungary on many occasions and upheld the rights of asylum seekers. Yet, as a recent study by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee has shown, EU member states often fail to implement judgements by the European Court of Human Rights and other bodies.

In one respect, European solidarity has functioned reasonably well. Since the Russian invasion on 24 February, the EU has provided substantial financial and material assistance to Ukraine. Its response to the war hasn’t been entirely united — Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s support for the government in Kyiv is lukewarm at best — but that hasn’t stopped it from also unanimously imposing sanctions on Russia, Belarus and Iran (which supplies drones to Russia), and on numerous individuals and entities in those countries.

The EU has also welcomed people fleeing Ukraine (though citizens of Ukraine more happily than others caught up in the war). In early March it invoked its Temporary Protection Directive, adopted in 2001 but never used, which gives refugees from Ukraine a residence permit for up to three years without the need to apply for asylum. The permit provides the right to work, gives access to social security payments and healthcare, and allows its holders to move freely between countries.

Because of that free movement, and because citizens of Ukraine can enter the EU for ninety days without a visa, the exact number of refugees in EU countries is anyone’s guess. The figure is probably around 4.5 million, with Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic between them accounting for well over half.

The length of residence permits and other benefits for Ukrainian refugees vary greatly. As of June, Germany paid each Ukrainian refugee living in government-provided accommodation €449 (A$690) per month, France less than half that amount, and Poland, the country that has accommodated by far the most refugees, just over €15. In some countries, Ukrainian refugees have access to free language courses, in others they don’t. Their chances of finding employment and the extent to which Ukrainian qualifications are recognised also vary greatly.

In the early weeks of the war, EU leaders demanded that refugees be spread across the twenty-three member countries. They argued that Portugal and Ireland, for example, although a long way from Ukraine, ought to help relieve the burden placed on Ukraine’s immediate neighbours. Some refugees were indeed relocated — but only from Moldova, which had received more Ukrainian refugees on a per capita basis than any other country.

In practice, relative proximity to Ukraine and existing diasporic networks have proved more important than local assistance in Ukrainians’ decisions about where to stay. Calls for a redistribution of refugees have become much less frequent, not least because countries hosting a large number of refugees receive additional EU funding. Besides, a compulsory mechanism to distribute Ukrainians across the EU would probably be unworkable under the Temporary Protection Directive. It has also proved unnecessary, and is in fact undesirable because it might prevent refugees from living in places where they can rely on diasporic support networks.

What is true for the EU is also true for individual member states. Germany ordinarily places asylum seekers across its sixteen states according to the so-called Königstein formula, which takes account of a state’s economic strength and population. Within states, asylum seekers are then allocated to districts, usually according to a similar formula.

An informed estimate puts the number of Ukrainian refugees in Germany at between 630,000 and 750,000, of which approximately 100,000 are in Berlin, a city of 3.8 million people. If Ukrainian refugees had been distributed according to the Königstein formula, Berlin would have received around a third of that number. Berlin authorities have certainly been complaining loudly about the challenges posed by large numbers, but only about 3000 Ukrainian refugees actually live in government-provided accommodation.

In parts of the country where the Ukrainian diaspora is smaller and Germans are less willing to share their apartments, most refugees allocated according to the Königstein formula would have needed accommodation in hostels, sports halls and container villages. Conflicts with the locals might have ensued, much like during 2015–16.

The situation may change, of course, not just in Germany but also elsewhere in Europe, if Russia succeeds in forcing more Ukrainians to flee. So far, predictions that the bombing of Ukrainian power stations would lead to a mass exodus have proven as wrong as the assumption that Poland would quickly buckle under the influx of refugees.

The reception of Ukrainian refugees suggests that efforts to distribute asylum seekers equitably across EU member states may not be what’s needed. On the contrary: rather than deporting asylum seekers back to the European country where their fingerprints were first taken, the EU may prefer to let them move to wherever they are supported by diasporic communities or civil society networks. The Ukrainian case suggests that one aspect of Article 67(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union is achievable, namely “a common policy on asylum… which is fair towards third-country nationals.”

The Ukrainian case doesn’t prove or disprove the idea that a common system could be “based on solidarity between Member States.” It doesn’t allow any inferences to be drawn about the validity of the claim that nation-states can behave as if they were individuals extending solidarity towards each other.

But the EU’s undeclared war on irregular migrants, including those seeking its protection, has had the unintended consequence of encouraging individual acts of solidarity of the kind referred to in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. They are not directed towards fellow EU residents, however, as envisaged in that article, but towards people the EU wants to keep out or expel.

As a consequence, activists have repeatedly intervened when authorities across Europe have tried to deport asylum seekers to places of danger or to where they had entered the EU. Even more significant than the anti-deportation campaigns, though, is the work of activists who assist refugees as they cross borders and who document unlawful attempts by the EU and national governments to prevent them from doing so.

In the central Mediterranean, where at least 25,000 irregularised migrants have died over the past eight years, private search-and-rescue operations have saved the lives of thousands of migrants. They enjoy considerable support not just in northern and western Europe but also in Italy and Spain.

In Poland, Grupa Granica has provided life-saving humanitarian assistance to migrants stranded in the forests at the Polish–Belarusian border, and monitored the human rights situation there. In Greece, volunteers have been assisting irregularised migrants who have made it to the islands of the northern Aegean, as well as refugees who have been left to fend for themselves in Athens. Much like the search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean, these volunteers have also tried to hold Frontex and the Greek coastguard accountable.

In all these cases, activism is not just the result of an affective response to suffering, and the sufferers are not regarded only as suppliants. We are indeed seeing solidarity in action.

With member states using the EU’s Facilitation Directive of 2002 to criminalise such acts of solidarity, activists have often paid a high price. Since 2016, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain have between them initiated sixty administrative or criminal proceedings against private organisations involved in search-and-rescue operations.

To make matters worse, the twenty-point action plan recently announced by the European Commission includes the following: “17. Promote discussions in the International Maritime Organization on the need for a specific framework and guidelines for vessels having a particular focus on search and rescue activities, particularly in view of developments in the European context.” These ominous lines suggest the European Commission, goaded by Italy’s racist Meloni government, is intent on further hindering the work of Sea-Watch, SOS Mediterranée and other private search-and-rescue organisations.

Prosecutions of this kind are worrying, and the prospects of further criminalisations dire. But if Robert Schuman was right in observing that solidarity is created by a process of practical achievements, then the solidarity targeted by governments such as Meloni’s and Orbán’s, as well as by the European Commission, has become a force to reckon with. Activists have thwarted attempts to turn Europe into an impenetrable fortress. Compare their efficacy with that of the inter-state solidarity of EU member states, which often exists only in the increasingly hollow appeals of the European Commission.

Acts by the likes of French farmer Cédric Herrou and seafarer Carola Rackete have captured the imagination of Europeans and inspired others to act in solidarity. Herrou was convicted of a délit de solidarité, a “solidarity offence,” for ferrying migrants from Italy to France and inviting them to camp at his property; Rackete, who captained the Sea-Watch 3, defied the Italian government’s order not to disembark irregularised migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.

Such acts have also inspired municipal governments to take action. Some of them have challenged the national authorities to allocate more asylum seekers to them than they are required to accommodate according to the official quota.

There is another reason why I am optimistic regarding the prospects for solidarity à la Herrou — as opposed to the European shield advocated by Ursula von der Leyen and others — and that’s to do with motivation. The intra-EU solidarity so frequently conjured by the European Commission is perhaps too easy a target. Because it isn’t practised (and may in fact not be necessary, at least in the context of a common policy of asylum), the solidarity of Articles 67 and 80 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union remains a weasel word.

The solidarity offered by the EU to others needs to be taken more seriously, not least because climate change will require countries of the global north to reposition themselves in relation to the global south. In her statement at COP27, von der Leyen said that solidarity means those in a position to help should assist those in need. She didn’t say why Tuvalu islanders or Bangladeshi farmers were in dire straits, or why the EU is in a position to help, but talked as if the EU were a charitable organisation that happened to be able to do good. Solidarity, to be successful and sustainable, needs to be grounded in notions of justice. That is something Herrou and Rackete know but von der Leyen, if she knows it, prefers not to acknowledge. •