The fact that the chancellor speaks of "loyalty" in such cases is likely a consequence of her having spent years using the world "solidarity" in a different, strictly economic context. "Solidarity in return for each country's own responsibility" is the euphemistic slogan that became familiar in the course of the crisis, a reference to the conditions imposed on credit recipients by those granting the credits. What I am getting at is the conditional redefinition of the term solidarity: that is the semantic breaking point where cracks are now showing in the certainty that we Germans are the best Europeans. Contrary to the raving clamor about transfer payments, which have never actually come to pass, what is slowly creeping into the public awareness is both the lack of legitimacy and the dubious effects of investment-hampering budgetary constraints, along with labor market reforms that result in entire generations being jobless.
"Solidarity" is a term that describes the mutually trusting relationship between two actors who have become part of a joint political project of their own free will. Solidarity is not charity, and it certainly isn't a form of conditioning for the advantage of one of the actors. Those who engage in solidarity are willing to accept short-term disadvantage in the service of their long-term self-interest and in the knowledge that the other will behave the same way in a similar situation. Reciprocal trust – in our case, trust across national borders – is just as important a variable as long-term self-interest. Trust bridges the time span until a service in return is due, though it is unsure when or if it will ever come due. The compulsory, rigid conditions for so-called solidarity aid clearly exposes the lack of such a foundation of trust – and the hollowness of our self-image as good Europeans.
In the negotiations over Macron's reform proposals, meanwhile, Germany and the other so-called donor countries in its tow once again hesitate to transform a sub-optimally functioning currency union into a political Euro Union. A democratic eurozone doesn't just need to be made "weatherproof" against speculation – by way of a banking union, a corresponding insolvency procedure, a joint deposit insurance scheme and an EU-level monetary fund. More than anything, it must be outfitted with sufficient competencies and budgetary means to intervene to keep the member states from further drifting apart economically and socially. It's not just about fiscal stabilization, but about convergence – the credible political intent of the economically and politically strongest member states to fulfill the common currency's broken promise of convergent economic developments.
Right-wing populism may feed off anti-migrant prejudice and the fears of modernization rampant in the middle class, but symptoms are not the illness itself. The underlying cause of political regression is the palpable disappointment that the EU in its current state is more than merely lacking the necessary political efficacy to counteract the trends of growing social inequality within and between its member states. First and foremost, right-wing populism is benefiting from the widespread perception that the EU lacks the political will to become politically effective. The currently crumbling core of Europe would – in the form of an effective Euro Union – be the only conceivable force able to prevent the further destruction of our oft-invoked social model. In its current condition, the union can only accelerate this dangerous destabilization. The cause of the Trumpian dissolution of Europe is the increasing – and, God knows, realistic – awareness among the European population that the credible political will to break out of this destructive spiral is lacking. Instead, the political elites are being sucked into the timid, pollster-driven opportunism of short-term power maintenance. The lack of courage to form even a single idea of one's own for which a majority must first be won is all the more ironic because a majority prepared to demonstrate solidarity already exists as a fleet in being. I believe that the political elites – first and foremost the despondent social democratic parties – underestimate the disposition of their voters to engage themselves for projects reaching beyond narrow self-interest. The fact that this view isn't just a reflection of unfulfilled philosophical ideals can be seen in the most recent publication by the research group led by Jürgen Gerhards, who for years has pursued wide-ranging and intelligent comparative studies on solidarity in 13 EU member states. He has not only found indicators for a shared European identity distinct from national identity, but also an unexpectedly high willingness to support European policies that would imply redistribution across national boundaries.
The Italian crisis is perhaps the last chance to reflect on the obscenity of a currency union which imposes a strict system of rules to the benefit of its strongest member states but does not in compensation provide the latitude for joint political action on the European level. That is why the first, small step toward the establishment of a eurozone budget that Macron forced through is of such symbolic importance. The fact that a German government, standing with its back to the wall, is demanding concessions for each tiny step toward integration is ludicrous. I cannot comprehend why the German government believes it can win agreement from its partners on issues that are important to us – such as refugee, foreign and foreign trade policy – while it concurrently digs in on the political development of the euro, a project of paramount importance.
The German government has buried its head in the sand while the French president has made it clear that he wants to make Europe into a global player in the fight for a liberal and more just world order. The reporting in the German press about the recent compromise reached by Macron and Merkel is likewise misleading – as though Merkel's acceptance of a eurozone budget had been a badly needed success for Macron, made in exchange for his support of her asylum plan. That portrayal ignores the fact that Macron has at least taken initial steps toward an agenda that reaches far beyond the interests of a single country, whereas Merkel is fighting for her political survival. Macron is rightly criticized in his own country for the socially imbalanced nature of his reforms, but he stands head and shoulders above other European leaders because he looks at each current problem from a much broader perspective and thus isn't condemned to act reactively. He has the courage to shape policy. And its success contradicts the sociological claim that the complexity of our society only allows for a governing style narrowly focused on conflict avoidance.
Simply looking back at the eternal rise and fall of the empires since Antiquity misses the novelty of the current situation. Despite continuing to grow together, global society remains politically fragmented. This frailty of politics provides a sense of the threshold before which people around the world recoil and shy away. I am referring here to the threshold of supranational and yet democratic forms of political integration that ask of voters that they, before casting their ballots, consider the perspectives of all citizens, even across national borders. The advocates of political realism, who have nothing but scorn for such a concept, often forget that their own theory is rooted in the Cold War conflict that involved two rational actors. Where, though, can rationality be found in today's political arena? Viewed historically, the overdue step toward an effective Euro Union is part of the same learning curve that already took place once before with the development of national consciousnesses in the 19th century. Then too, the cognizance of national belonging beyond town, city and region did not evolve in any "natural" way. National identities were, rather, purposefully created by leading elites by adapting the shared consciousness of the populations to the already existing and wider ranging functional contexts of modern territorial states and national economies. Today, national populations are overwhelmed by the politically uncontrollable functional imperatives of a global capitalism that is being driven by unregulated financial markets. The frightened retreat behind national borders cannot be the correct response to that challenge.
Translated by Charles Hawley