Democracy & Justice

What is Solidarity and How Strong is it in Europe?

"Solidarity" is commonly seen as the basis for a stable society. Yet, at the same time, there is always talk of a crisis of solidarity in the public debate. So what is solidarity and how is it doing?

by Franziska Otto

What does the term solidarity mean?

The original meaning of the word "solidarity" is "togetherness". Solidarity stands for people helping and supporting each other. It can be a voluntary symbolic act (e.g. participation in demonstrations against the Ukraine war) or material help (e.g. donations after a flood disaster). Within academia, however, there is no universal understanding of solidarity.

Solidarity is needed above all by people who have to fight for their rights. Alone, they often do not have the means to assert their concerns against the majority society. People in need can receive help from those who are doing well. When their needs are met, those who were once in need can return the act of solidarity towards others.

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Where does the concept of solidarity come from?

The origin of the word solidarity is found in the law of obligations. In the Roman Empire, people in debt could rely on other people to help them. Family members had to pay for the totality of the debt and the whole had to pay for the individual's debt.

In the famous motto of the French Revolution, "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), brotherhood stands for solidarity.

With the industrialisation of the late 18th and early 19th century, "solidarity" also found its way into political action. At that time, many peasants left their villages to look for work in the cities. While everyone still knew each other in their home community, they suddenly faced poverty and loneliness. Conditions were not only difficult for peasants; workers in the cities were also confronted with many challenges. Their working conditions were often very poor; their pay insufficient to live on. Workers and peasants realised that they had the same problems and goals, and they united in solidarity. Together they campaigned for better working and living conditions.

Today, our idea of solidarity has changed. For instance, it forms the basis of our statutory social insurance. Politicians usually ask for it when they want to prepare citizens for future burdens.

What are the areas of life where solidarity is most important?

We can encounter solidarity in all areas of our daily lives. No one part is really more important than the other.

For many of us, "solidarity" evokes big things and actions. In our welfare state, for example, many institutions are based on the idea of solidarity, such as health insurance or unemployment insurance. The idea is that everyone pays into a pot and this money is then distributed fairly to those who need it because they have lost their job or fallen ill.

But solidarity is also lived out on a smaller scale, for example in neighbourhood help, when people in a village drive their elderly neighbours to important appointments in the city because there is no bus.

What are some examples of solidarity?

The Coronavirus Pandemic

The Covid pandemic demonstrated that solidarity is a limited resource. When the first restrictions on life and the lockdown occurred, solidarity was still strong. People offered to go shopping for their elderly or sick neighbours so that they would not have to expose themselves to the risk of the virus. In the evenings, many stood at their windows or on their balconies to clap for hospital staff taking care of those suffering from Covid. Masks were sewn and distributed among the community. Even a study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that citizens surveyed in the summer of 2020 had a much more positive impression of the solidarity of their fellow citizens than was the case in previous years.

However, the study also shows that after two years this effect has turned into the opposite. The quality of social interaction has suffered and especially people with lower incomes perceive less solidarity.

Solidarnosc in Poland

Solidarity movements can bring about major changes within society. A significant example is the Polish Solidarity movement, which led to a political turnaround in the country.

Originally founded as a coalition of shipyard workers, it campaigned among other things for higher wages. In September 1980, it officially became the Solidarnosc organisation, which aimed to preserve the unity of the labour movement. It quickly grew into the largest non-governmental trade union in the country, representing all layers of Polish society. Together they wanted to achieve reforms within the existing system.

In 1981 Solidarnosc was banned and 10,000 members were arrested. After long waves of strikes in 1988 and round table talks, the union was re-registered in 1989. It was the grand winner in the parliamentary elections of the same year and the first non-communist government in the country. This initiated a complete regime change in Poland and also made waves in other Eastern Bloc countries. Solidarnosc is credited with having a decisive influence on the end of communism.

Solidarity in Europe and the world

Solidarity constitutes one of the fundamental principles of the European Union. The preamble to the Treaty on European Union already speaks of "desiring to deepen the solidarity between their people while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions". It is also reflected in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Chapter IV is entitled "Solidarity", and Articles 27 to 38 guarantee, among other things, the right to collective bargaining and protection against unjustified dismissal. Even the EU's funding mechanism can be considered as solidarity-based. The larger countries contribute more money to the system so that economically weaker states can be supported through funding projects. In cases of security threats or disasters, there is supposed to be solidarity within Europe.

However, in recent years, a crisis of solidarity within Europe has been claimed on many occasions. This is partly related to the refugee crisis in 2015, when some member states put their own interests above those of others. In September 2015, countries such as Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Croatia closed their borders completely or partially, leaving their neighbours alone with the large number of refugees. The decision to relocate refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU states also failed, even though it was already agreed upon.

And even the subsidies, which are actually given with the idea that the stronger support the weaker, are not always used for this purpose. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rather uses these funds to enrich his friends. This could now lead to Hungary receiving less funding.

Now, what does solidarity look like at a global level? Again, states are quite quick to announce acts of solidarity or to call for solidarity. One example is the Covid pandemic. In order to tackle the virus as quickly as possible, close cooperation of the community of states was urged. In reality, however, many countries, especially the rich ones, turned to an "every state for themselves" solution. This was particularly evident in the distribution of the important vaccines. Since Western countries had more financial resources, they had bought up the stocks of vaccines on the world market, which meant that poorer countries were left with nothing. Although a programme called Covax was set up to distribute vaccines worldwide, it repeatedly occurred that vaccines donated by industrialised nation were no longer usable.

Do some countries show more solidarity than others?

The quality of solidarity and solidarity-based action cannot be measured. That is why it is difficult to say whether one country shows more solidary than another or whether solidarity works better in certain parts of the world.

Another reason is that solidarity can take very different forms. An example for this is the situation in the United States of America. There is no health system in the USA that could be compared to ours. Medical bills are often extremely high, medical treatments not affordable for all. At the same time, we hear time and again about big campaigns in which neighbourhoods, friends and families join forces to raise money. While this may seem strange from a German perspective, it shows that there is not only one way to act in solidarity.

Does solidarity have a future? What can we do for solidarity?

Presumably, real-life solidarity will always come in waves. There will be times when we need more solidarity and times when people look out for themselves first.

Of course, society may change as a result of increasing individualisation. For a long time, public debate has proclaimed a break-up of society or an end to solidarity. But actually, the perceived level of social cohesion has hardly changed between 1990 and 2020.

Nevertheless, we and politicians in particular can do something to strengthen solidarity. We need to create an environment that is capable of counteracting fatigue and frustration. For this, transparency is crucial, for example, so that people can see that something good has actually been done with their donations and that the money does not seep away somewhere. Particularly in times of crisis, it is difficult to act with foresight, as the situation can change constantly. Mistakes and errors must therefore be openly communicated. This can help to create more understanding among the public for certain decisions, which in turn can have an impact on the acceptance of changes or temporary cuts.

But it is not always necessary to think so big. We can all live in solidarity in our daily lives as well. We can take part in protests to show people facing a crisis that they are not alone. If we have the opportunity, we can donate money to support actions we believe in. Or we can be there for our friends who are going through a difficult time. Solidarity need not be grand or complicated.


Nathan Anderson, Joel Muniz /Unsplash

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