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Euro crisis: The meaning of 'solidarity' in the eurozone

Repairs to the Acropolis

Supporters of European integration have always been keen on the idea of "solidarity" between nations. It's not a word heard so much in the Anglo-Saxon world - but at this time of crisis, perhaps examples from American history hold useful lessons?

European Union technocrats use the word "solidarity" a lot these days. With the EU facing the greatest crisis of its existence over the eurozone debt catastrophe, there are constant calls to show solidarity with the Greeks.

The EU's success over decades has been built on ideas of solidarity. The annual contributions from the EU member states, based on their Gross National Income, pay for the European Commission, Parliament and other institutions but far more is channelled back to the member states themselves.

The Common Agricultural Policy accounts for more than 40% of EU expenditure - in Britain, according to UK government figures, more than 100,000 farmers receive £1.5bn ($2.3bn) in CAP funds each year.

Meanwhile, 35% of the EU budget - so-called structural and cohesion funds - is spent helping member states modernise infrastructure and improve competitiveness, with poorer countries, and poorer regions of wealthier countries, the main beneficiaries.

My first reporting trip to Ireland was 20 years ago when the nation's citizens were preparing to vote on the Maastricht Treaty. The country was poor, stuck in a 1950s time warp. Over the next half-decade, I was a regular visitor to Ireland, and watched as structural and cohesion funding transformed the physical landscape and the Celtic Tiger economy was kick-started to life. It was a jaw-droppingly effective way to bring the country into the present.

That was an example of solidarity at work.

Ireland's banking crash was an example of something else. And I think that crash, part of the wider global banking crisis, has led to an onset of forgetfulness about the benefits of international solidarity in hard times.

Here, for our fearful present, are two positive examples of this kind of solidarity - both from America where the concept is rarely mentioned, but is sometimes put into practice.

Image caption Engineers working on Tennessee's Watts Bar Dam (1942)

During the Great Depression, the South was the most deeply impoverished part of the US. Still reeling from its defeat in the Civil War 70 years earlier, the region's overwhelmingly rural population had a per capita income that was dramatically less than more industrialised parts of the country.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal included programmes that particularly targeted the region. Best known was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It became a paradigm for government infrastructure investment. It built hydro-electric dams which brought electricity to the region. It helped improve navigation on the river so that agricultural products could get to market faster.

Solidarity between America's wealthy states and its poorer ones.

Seventy years after World War II, Germany is not reeling from its defeat. In considerable part because of the Marshall Plan. The plan was devised and implemented by many who had been part of the New Deal.

Solidarity between America and its vanquished foe.

Image caption A combine harvester supplied to post-war Europe by the Marshall Plan

Given the precarious state of the global economy, the question of what stronger states can and should do to help weaker ones, whether they are part of federal entities, like the US or looser associations like the EU, will not be going away soon.

Greece is a problem for the EU but how do you handle a situation like California? Despite receiving around $85 billion in American Recovery Act funds, some of its cities are on the verge of bankruptcy and it currently has the second highest unemployment rate among the 50 states, 10.9%. Some would say California is already a ward of the other 49 states as it receives $1.45 from the federal government for every $1 in federal tax it sends to Washington.

Californians could argue back that in the quarter century between 1981 and 2005 they paid a total of approximately $4.08tn (£2.65tn) in federal taxes. Meanwhile, the federal government spent a total of roughly $3.59tn (£2.33tn) in and on the state of California. In other words, the state's taxpayers contributed almost half a trillion dollars more to the federal government than they got back.

So now times are tough on the West Coast. Funds from The Federal Recovery Act, passed into law in 2009 shortly after Barack Obama became president, are running out. If it were possible (it's not) what would happen if 80 years after the New Deal, California asked Tennessee, "How about lending us a hand?" What would the answer be?

In Germany, meanwhile, solidarity is being interpreted as a quid pro quo. Germany agrees to fund a bail-out package for Greece - maybe Spain next. Greece agrees (or possibly does not agree) to crippling austerity cuts. Call it solidarity-light.

The very different cases of California and Greece show how much American and European society has changed over the last 60-plus years.

When General George Marshall first publicly outlined his plan in a speech at Harvard University back in 1947, he gave a simple reason for committing the US to rebuilding Germany and Europe's economy - rational self-interest. The potential for political instability that would affect Americans was too great if the US government turned its back on the continent.

Marshall said: "It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world." The American plan would, "permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist".

Those pragmatic sentiments could be applied to the wealthy core countries of the eurozone as they contemplate the economic crisis engulfing the single currency's periphery.

"It is logical that Germany should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to Europe."

Solidarity for the 21st Century?

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and broadcaster who has lived in London since 1985.