Circles of solidarity – or how to reconcile the European and the national

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

The main idea is to find ways to introduce the interests of the EU into the politics of its member states and to not let these two perspectives be viewed as contradictory. National parliaments, for instance, should be engaged more strongly in the process of running and re-shaping the EU. This could have a positive impact on domestic politics, forcing national parties to formulate not only inner-state political agendas, but also to propose solutions that could be adopted on the EU level.

Jakub Kloc-Konkołowicz argues that the notion of solidarity remains abstract and empty if it is not rooted in some sort of learning process. This learning process starts in the family and expands via communities towards civil society, the state and, finally, structures that transgress the boundaries of the state. Seen from this perspective, perceived contradictions between national and European loyalty disappear and are replaced by a concept of the growing scope of solidarity and responsibility.

For some time now, the EU has seemed caught in a vicious circle, as steps to actually realise the pan-European idea and the revival of nationalist feelings in the member states are reinforcing each other. Playing the anti-European card, most of all by blaming Brussels for all shortcomings of day-to-day life in the member states, becomes an easy way to collect votes. This process is highly dangerous; it threatens the very idea of European integration and pushes the European states back to the Concert of Europe stage, in which national interests are played off against each other. Within member states, the European Union is often perceived and referred to as some sort of external force, which by itself should cause alarm. Being a citizen of a particular member state and being European are seen by all too many not as compatible or indeed mutually reinforcing, but rather as a contradiction, creating a dilemma of allegiance out of which there is no good way out.

The unfolding process of Brexit illustrates the harmful consequences of playing off narrow national interests against a wider European agenda. Many try to interpret this growing tension as a regression to nationalist atavisms long assumed overcome. This backslide may be seen as an outcome of different factors: social instability, fear of globalisation, xenophobia, etc. This interpretation pattern, however, seems to lead us nowhere but to simply condemning populist movements and lamenting the lack of insight of many European citizens. Blaming the people, though, is at best useless to escape the described contradiction, and is in fact often counterproductive as it plays into the hands of populist movements. Circles of solidarity I propose to end the rhetoric of juxtaposing – and indeed putting into conflict – national and European interests. Rather, we should try to re-think the classical idea of circles of solidarity (which I will call the CoS concept in what follows). The notion of solidarity remains abstract and empty if it is not rooted in some sort of learning process. This learning process starts in the immediate family and then expands towards the community, civil society, the state and, finally, structures that transgress the boundaries of the state. Seen from this perspective, the contradiction between national and European loyalty disappears and gives way to the more harmonious concept of a growing scope of solidarity and responsibility. Assuming duties towards larger, more abstract communities does not imply a denial of duties towards the smaller, more concrete ones. This idea could diminish the gap between European institutions, such as the European Parliament or the European Commission, and institutions representing citizens on a more local level. To do so is particularly urgent with regards to national parliaments. To bridge the gap between them and the EU institutions, national parliaments should be engaged in the EU’s legislative process (see Richard Bellamy’s proposal in this volume). The European agenda should be presented before national parliaments just as national agendas should be presented before the European Parliament.

Theoretical background According to the CoS concept, we should consider solidarity to be a continuous learning process: On every higher and wider level of solidarity, we act upon abilities and virtues that we have achieved at the previous level. The strength of the CoS concept lies in its inclusiveness: By transgressing levels of solidarity already achieved, we do not renounce or deny them, but rather include further persons, institutions, and duties into the scope of our responsibility. We can, of course, think of some situations in which our duties as citizens are in contradiction with, for instance, our duties as family members. Such dramatic conflicts of allegiance, though, are luckily the rare exception. In our everyday life as citizens, we do not usually find ourselves in such conflicts, but rather treat the fulfillment of our more particular duties as a solid basis for also fulfilling the more general ones. Only responsible citizens of their respective member states can reasonably be expected to be responsible Europeans, as well. Seen from this perspective, the anti-European rhetoric interestingly seems to think of citizens of member states as being simply too irresponsible or weak to assume responsibility for broader communities. Here lies another strength of the CoS concept: By not expecting citizens of member states to give up their concern for national interests, but rather encouraging them to include European matters in the scope of that initial concern, it treats citizens as responsible adults.

Both its inclusiveness and its appeal to the self-esteem and responsibility of citizens are core assets of the CoS concept. Its biggest strength, however, is to think of solidarity as a long-term learning process that cannot be realised by “forgetting” the earlier stages of achievement. The 19th-century Spanish philosopher Juan Donoso Cortés asked the proponents of what he called the “socialist schools”: How is it possible to postulate universal solidarity of mankind while denying at the same time the familiar and state-related forms of solidarity (as, according to him, many socialist thinkers do)? The German philosopher Hegel shows in his book The Philosophy of Right how individuals gradually achieve abilities that make it possible for them to play the role of modern citizens. Family, market, and civil society are depicted as different forms of ethical life. We learn only by participating in each of them to understand the sort of solidarity required from citizens. For Hegel, this growing scope of solidarity and responsibility ends on the level of the nation-state. Not so for Hierocles, a 2nd-century stoic thinker, who maintains that we can achieve solidarity within the circle of humankind as such. What unites these three thinkers is the insight that solidarity does not fall from the heaven of philosophical ideas, but is always a matter of continued participation in ever-larger forms of community with other people.

Concrete proposals According to the CoS concept, the nation-state remains an important (even if not a single) reference point for European citizens. If we want to harmonise their national loyalty with European responsibility – rather than juxtaposing those dimensions of their identity – we should strengthen the very institution of the nation-state that embodies democratic decision-making and represents the voters. This, of course, is the national parliament. Above all, we should try to diminish the distance between national parliaments and European institutions.

National parliaments should be engaged much more deeply in the process of steering, shaping, and thus strengthening the European Union. This idea is not at all new, and many concrete proposals have been discussed in the past. What is missing so far is implementation. To name but a few measures: • more extensive collaboration between MPs and MEPs; • recognition of a collective right of national parliaments to request legislative proposals on certain topics of the European Commission; • increased video conferencing between member-state representatives and EU representatives.

Realising these proposals would likely have an impact on domestic politics, forcing national parties to formulate not only domestic political agendas, but also to make proposals that could be adopted on the EU level.

Another concrete measure to diminish the gap between European institutions and national parliaments would be to obligate every newly elected prime minister of a member state to present his or her agenda not only to the respective national parliament, but also to the European Parliament, and then to answer MEPs’ questions. By the same token, the president of the European Commission would be obliged to present his or her agenda to the parliament of every member state, say, every other year. This, too, would be followed by a format in which every MP or represented party could ask questions. While such a practice may seem largely symbolic, we should not underestimate the positive psychological and consequently political effects of efforts to mutually show respect to the various institutions and parliaments.

Critical questions and comments One of the objections raised in the Twelve Stars online debate was that public awareness of how the EU actually works and reaches decisions is extremely low within member states. Given that the process of EU legislation is already complicated today, strengthening the impact of national MPs on this process can only make it more cumbersome, risking paralysis of EU legislation. While this argument is convincing on a pragmatic level, it also is double-edged as it is precisely the complexity of EU legislation that is often seen as a lack of transparency and used as an argument against the EU in domestic discussions. Moreover, one could observe that the transparency of the legislative processes is also pretty low on the national level, yet hardly anybody maintains that voters have too much impact on national parliaments.

Another objection is based on the concern that strengthening the role of national parliaments within the framework of the EU would imply diminishing the role of the European Parliament. Instead of weakening the European Parliament, the argument runs, we should give it even more powers, such as overseeing national budgets. Tellingly, opposition arose to the proposal of giving the European Parliament fiscal powers. One critical comment suggested that the very idea of having richer states pay for the “fiscal mismanagement” of poorer states could lead to the dissolution of the EU. This comment shows that the idea of a “stronger Europe” is not necessarily enthusiastically accepted by all EU citizens – whether from “poorer” or “richer” member states.

The unsaid assumption fueling such controversies is that strengthening the member states necessarily implies weakening the EU and vice versa. What I propose is to break the vicious circle of “Less Europe, more nation-state” vs. “Less nation-state, more Europe” by strengthening the member-states perspective in the framework of the EU and the EU perspective in the domestic politics of the member states. The formula I argue for is “More influence of member states within Europe, more Europe within member states”. To see if it works, we should try to realise some of the proposed concrete solutions. Let us start with having both national and European politicians present their respective agendas before both European and national parliaments. Let us see if the debates accompanying such presentations would not at least slightly diminish the gap between the EU and the national politics of its member states – for the sake of both!

Further reading Conference of Parliamentary: Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of

the European Union.

Cortés, Juan Donoso. Essays on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism. Transl. by William M’Donald. Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1879.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of Right. Transl. by Alan White. Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2002.

Hierocles. Ethical Fragments. Revised 1822 translation of Thomas Taylor.Enhanced Media Publishing, 2017.

Romanillo, Maria. “Empowerment of National Parliaments and the European Democratic Disconnect”. Presentation at the Second Euroacademia International Conference “The European Union and the Politicization of Europe”. Budapest, 6-8 December 2012.

Online Debate

On 26 May 2018, Jakub Kloc-Konkołowicz defended his proposal in the Twelve Stars debate. The main objections are presented below. Rebuttals can be followed in the online debate.

Background Research

Read up on current initiatives and proposals concerning this topic in our background briefing.


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