Solidarity and Its Limits

This is part of a special series on the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This contribution was written in early April, during rapid development and a fast-moving news cycle.


As a cultural hybrid living between two cultures and languages, and as a scholar focusing on the literature and culture of contemporary Germany and Europe, I have been reading daily about the way European countries are approaching the Coronavirus pandemic. Time and again, my thoughts have circled back to the notion of solidarity. The COVID-19 crisis has become my newest teacher—a phone call to a friend or family member in isolation, a take-out order to help keep a favorite restaurant afloat, a donation to a charity or an initiative close to our hearts now all count as significant acts of solidarity. They also allow us to combat the feeling of having lost control over much of our former lives and routines. We are all understanding viscerally that as social animals, we feel comforted when we reach out and help one another, as much as this is possible in times of state-mandated social distancing and spatial isolation.

Solidarity is also one of the most frequently used words in Europe’s public discourse and media; appeals to it have multiplied as a consequence of recent turmoil, such as the financial crash of 2008 and the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015. While mutual support might work reasonably well on an interpersonal level, the Coronavirus outbreak is rapidly revealing the limits of solidarity when it comes to nation states, confirming that it is not a genuine “European” value per se, but is borrowed from the national political vocabulary.[1] Despite the fact that a global pandemic requires what Ulrich Beck in his studies of second modernity calls a “cosmopolitan frame of reference” or even the application of “cosmopolitical realpolitik,” what we are actually witnessing is the strong resurgence of nationalistic outlooks within the European Union as a conglomerate of twenty-seven countries with supremely diverse cultures and histories. The Brexit campaign, Spain’s separatist movement, France’s gilets jaunes protests, and the rise of neo-fascist discourses and parties across the continent (to name just a few of the 2019 issues du jour, which now seem, quite literally, almost as those of yesteryear), had already revealed deep divisions throughout the continent that put European values and ideologies in question. But the Coronavirus crisis has sharpened these existing divisions even more. The pandemic is threatening to once and for all end the vision of a united Europe whose actions are grounded in mutual solidarity and shared values.

To be sure, there is some distribution of resources across borders, which is in line with frameworks such as the Treaty of Lisbon and the “solidarity clause” of Article 222 about the workings of the European Union that stipulates that member states will lend support in cases of terror attacks, natural disasters, or catastrophes caused by human errors. Germany, where hospitals are not (yet) overwhelmed, is treating upwards of 120 severely ill COVID-19 patients from France, Spain, and Italy,[2] and has sent seven tons of medical gear to Italy, while France donated a million masks to this hardest-hit European country. But as debates about “Corona bonds,” which would make all European countries equally liable for the debt being accrued during the crisis show, solidarity is easiest when it does not come at too high a cost for the richer countries of the North.

Maybe the most egregious example of this is the situation on the Greek island of Lesbos, where more than 20,000 migrants are languishing in limbo, held there by a treaty that the EU made with Turkey in 2016. Jean Ziegler, Vice President of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council, has likened the treatment of refugees on the outer borders of the European Union to a crime against humanity,[3] and the infamous Camp Moria has become the symbol of the utterly failed European approach to the ongoing refugee crisis. Before the Coronavirus struck, the EU had agreed to evacuate at least 1,000 to 1,500 sick and traumatized children and unaccompanied minors under the age of fourteen. However, at the beginning of April, Germany only committed to taking fifty minors, while Luxembourg agreed to take twelve. Other European countries cited national interest and challenges during the Coronavirus crisis in order to explain their delay in helping the most vulnerable. While the social democracies of Europe are committing billions of euros to mitigate the catastrophic outcomes of a global economic meltdown and protect their people from becoming destitute, their actions starkly reveal how they guard their national interests and those who “belong” to the national body by virtue of possessing citizenship. Camps, such as the one at Moria, which Giorgio Agamben has called “the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity” and a “pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical space,” have the refugee as their emblem: Forgotten and reduced to bare life, always already excluded from entry into the fortress that is contemporary Europe.


Anke S. Biendarra is Associate Professor of German and European Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the Faculty Director of Study Abroad on the UCI campus and previously served as Faculty Director for Northern Europe for the University of California (2015-18). She is the author of Germans Going Global (2012) and the co-editor of Visions of Europe. Interdisciplinary Contributions to Contemporary Debates (2014) and a special double issue on Europe in Contemporary German Literature that is forthcoming in Colloquia Germanica (fall 2020). Currently she is completing a monograph on transcultural German-language authors, European memory, and migration.



[1] Wolfgang Schmale. “European Solidarity. A Semantic History.“ European Review of History 24 (2017): 854-873.


[3] This was the context of Ziegler’s 2019 visit to the Moria reception center for refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. Cf. Jean Ziegler. Die Schande Europas. Von Flüchtlingen und Menschenrechten. Trans. Hainer Kober. Munich: Bertelsmann, 2020.


Photo:Doctor wearing protection face mask against coronavirus. Banner panorama medical staff preventive gear | Shutterstock
Published on May 1, 2020.


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