The courage to show solidarity

The Corona crisis has finally exposed the danger of the “private over state” priority practiced in the past thirty years, writes Gesine Schwan of Germany’s SPD (Social Democrat Party).

For some time already, the need to adequately finance public goods had become clear in many places. Now, no reasonable person will contradict that anymore. In view of our European and global interdependences, the same applies to the productive power of solidarity and its sheer need for survival. Both speak for the political and vital importance of basic social democratic values.

It would therefore be important as a guideline that social democratic responses to the corona crisis clearly reflect these basic values. Social democrats see freedom, justice and solidarity in an inseparable structural context. We believe that freedom, which knows its responsibility for justice and solidarity, and does not simply focus on individual private interests, guides politics in the best and most sustainable manner.

In the European Union, over the past 15 years, German social democrats have often failed to clearly implement this orientation in their de facto policies. That is why we do not have a reputation for being particularly solidaristic or fair towards our neighbours. Now we have a new chance to prove that reputation wrong.

Lack of solidarity

But this chance has received a “bump” right at the start when we failed to at least prevent the export ban on medical goods to Italy. How serious this stubborn lack of solidarity is – whoever was responsible for it – can be seen in the handwritten “apology” letter from President Steinmeier (SPD)_ to the Italian President. Things like that must not happen again.

In day-to-day politics, we not only underestimate the long-lasting negative effect of what seems to be our un-solidarity, but above all the great positive opportunities that a clearly solidarity-based policy holds– for Europe’s cohesion as well as for our own political opportunities. However, symbolic gestures only count in the long term if they clearly preclude any interpretation of having been used instrumentally. The prototype for this is Willy Brandt’s “Warsaw genuflection” in 1970, when the then West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, spontaneously and almost shockingly, knelt in silence for a minute in respect for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The German aid packages during the martial law period in Poland are equally unforgotten there.

As chair of the SPD Fundamental Values Commission, I urge us all to demonstrate solidarity in the financing of post-pandemic economic reconstruction in Europe, which by all means may include criteria for responsible lending and use. These would also have to be formulated for corona bonds.

The use of the European Stability Mechanism has – apart from all economic and legal considerations – the disadvantage that for many European countries and societies it at least formally connects to a past with German dominance and to a “reform” conditionality that is psychologically heavily burdened. The imposed “reforms” have, in fact, contributed significantly to the current shortage of public goods in the healthcare system.

If German Social Democrats now insist on continuing to follow the logic of the ESM or even refuse to fund solidarity at all, all chances for a new and solidarity-driven start in Europe are wasted.

German Social Democrats have a key position here for Europe and therefore also a great responsibility. With the ESM, at least a radical change in conditionality, if possible, in the sense of sustainability, should be jointly defined at European level.

The central point is that the dominance of German financial policy under Wolfgang Schäuble has humiliated the other Europeans. This must not be repeated. The smaller northern European countries that participated in this would perhaps have acted differently, had the attitude in Germany been different.

An end to that

It is therefore important that all echoes of the previous know-it-all attitude that repeatedly suspected all others of irresponsibility and which – despite European interdependency –attributed every German success exclusively to her skills and merits are strictly avoided.

This also means that the Germans must help to compensate for the currently poorer economic starting positions, especially for the southern Europeans (for whom we are jointly responsible). This worse starting point after the virus must not lead to worse credit conditions for the reconstruction than for example for the Germans. A corona fund could make this compensation easier.

It would also clearly state symbolically: we want to promote Europe together. And it is not even a question of joint debt servicing, but of a guarantee which, given the ECB’s announced policy of buying bonds without a cap, would not even become effective.

A procedure should also be followed for the formulation of the criteria for the use of credit, in which everyone can contribute with their various interests on an equal footing and in which one, first of all, listens to each other! Everyone will have an interest in the fact that responsibility is anchored institutionally or that the infamous “moral hazard” is excluded.

If this is settled, social democrats must finally have the courage to clearly represent solidarity as joint liability – after all, that is the essence of solidarity – and at the same time show its economic and political advantages. They should not again bow to the cheap propaganda – and its petty bourgeois background – against “paying for the debts of others”.

In this crisis, we must bravely seize the opportunities of a new, solidarity-driven start in Europe.

Professor Gesine Schwan is  President of the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform and Chair of the SPD Fundamental Values Commission

First published by Progressive Post

Image of German Chancellor Willy Brandt (SPD) at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial 1970