European Parliament in session, February 2020. CREDIT: <a href=>European Union (CC)</a>.
European Parliament in session, February 2020. CREDIT: European Union (CC).

COVID-19: Eroding the Ethics of Solidarity?

Apr 8, 2020

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

One reason why I have never been a fan of the term "international community" is because I am not sure that the politicians and pundits who use the term have fully accepted the ethical commitments that come from naming something as a community. A community, if understood in the context of the classical Greek term κοινωνία (koinonia) or the Latin communio, mandates a series of rights, duties, and obligations shared by all of its members. In the modern context, this shows up in various international institutions under the rubric of solidarity—the Organization of American States (OAS) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) both contain provisions that an attack or assault on one member is to be treated as an assault on all, while the fundamental basis of the European Union is that members are prepared to sacrifice for the well-being, safety, and security of others within the community.

Solidarity is easy when there is no perceived cost or major sacrifice entailed. Even when a disaster may hit one part of the community, if others have not been affected, it is politically easier to send help or share aid. The true test of solidarity comes when the requirement to show solidarity carries with it real costs.

The pandemic is stress-testing the depths and resilience of the solidarity not only of an international community, but more specific associations within the Western world, including the European Union and NATO—because the pandemic is threatening all rather than being geographically localized. It is not surprising that alongside the ethic of solidarity, the ethic of sovereignty rises as a counterpoint: that a government's first obligation is to its own.

What are the implications? Senior European leaders, recently quoted in The Guardian, fear this could fatally damage the European project:

In a rare intervention Jacques Delors, the former European commission president who helped build the modern EU, broke his silence last weekend to warn that lack of solidarity posed "a mortal danger to the European Union."

Enrico Letta, a former prime minister of Italy, has said the EU faces a "deadly risk" from the global pandemic. "We are facing a crisis that is different from previous crises," he told The Guardian—partly, he said, because of the unpredictable progression of the virus, partly because "Europeanism" has been weakened by other crises of the past decade.

"The communitarian spirit of Europe is weaker today than 10 years ago," he said . . . "If everyone took the strategy of 'Italy first,' 'Belgium first,' or 'Germany first,'" he said, "we will all sink altogether." "This is definitely a make-it-or-break-it moment for the European project," said Nathalie Tocci, a former adviser to the EU foreign policy chief. "If it goes badly this really risks being the end of the union."

Even in the United States, the bonds of solidarity among the states has been tested and competition for medical equipment and internal travel restrictions challenge the notion of American indivisibility.

And when aid is proffered, are there expectations that strings are attached—that it is not given out of a recognition of an ethical obligation of solidarity, but in a transactional spirit where some sort of quid pro quo is expected? Are the "politics of generosity" really a way to cloak increasing one's influence and gaining geopolitical advantage?

Polling data in Italy suggests a weakening of support for the European project based on the early lack of response from other EU member-states. As the Union begins to gear up its response capabilities, and if the United States begins to link its own assistance with a clearer narrative, will these doubts about the efficiacy of solidarity be mitigated? Or will this contribute to a further shift towards viewing international relations as a series of transactional bargains?

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