Stefan Wallaschek

Solidarity is one of the buzzwords in current European politics. Whether the Euro crisis, Brexit or Europe's migration crisis, the call to solidarity prominently features in public debates. At the same time, scholars criticise the lack of solidarity in these crises. However, it is rather unclear what solidarity means. How do actors make sense of a concept that as far from unambiguous? Who should stand in solidarity with whom and how do actors justify their call to solidarity?

Adapted from a piece originally published in Political Studies.

Previous debates on solidarity have predominantly focused on structural and behavioural aspects of solidarity, missing the underlying meaning making process of solidarity.

The structural analysis of solidarity is situated in research on welfare states and social policies that are seen as institutionalisations of solidarity. Impersonal and mandatory redistributional schemes such as the public social security are understood as manifestations of solidarity in contemporary societies. Scholars understand this as 'social solidarity' in the national welfare state and are sceptical towards an effective and encompassing European social policy.

The behavioural solidarity strand focuses on attitudes and behaviour by individuals and collective actors analysing the (strength or weakness of) social bond among citizens. Studies show how deservingness criteria influence the public support for social benefits targeting different social groups (elderly, unemployed, refugees) and for instance in the UK, a hierarchy of showing solidarity with different groups is pointed out. Recent contributions to this strand 'uploaded' the foremost national focus on individuals to the European level. They show that solidarity bonds exist among European citizens. Transnational experiences and interactions, stays abroad and favouring cultural diversity and openness increase the likelihood of showing solidarity with (European) strangers concerning redistributing goods.

However, both solidarity strands are less interested in how actors make sense of the concept of solidarity even though solidarity can be qualified as 'contested concept' in which different actors dispute about the most proper meaning of the concept.

In a recent study in Political Studies, I suggest to look at these meaning construction processes in greater detail. Solidarity can be differentiated into two dimensions: While the meaning dimension refers to the content of solidarity, the scale dimension focuses on who is included by the call to solidarity. Both dimensions can be openly combined by actors and taken into account how actors make sense of the concept in a relative autonomously way. For instance, the meaning 'social solidarity' can be attributed to the national scale as the aforementioned structural approach to solidarity focuses on. However, this is not predetermined and actors might also claim social solidarity on a transnational scale, demanding a common social insurance for all European citizens. Therefore, the question on how do actors use solidarity in their public claims should be openly investigated.

This approach is applied to the German public debate on migration and Europe's migration crisis, because during this time period, the call to solidarity was omnipresent and thus, represents a crucial case to test the discursive construction of solidarity approach.

What we can learn from the study are two main insights into the meaning(s) of solidarity and Europe's migration crisis. Firstly, actors deploy a rather broad set of solidarity meanings in public debates. They do not solely focus on social solidarity as the two strands on solidarity suggest. Rather, the meaning of 'political solidarity' on the intergovernmental scale of the EU, understood as cooperative behaviour towards creating new institutions and mechanism, is very prominent in the discourse - before 2015 and in 2015. Simultaneously, the relevance of transnational cultural solidarity, conceptualised as shared norms and beliefs as foundations for solidary actions, decreases from the pre-crisis time period to the crisis period.

Secondly, the discursive change underlines the political nature of the migration crisis. It highlights the obstacles of an asymmetrically developed EU Home and Justice Affairs. Due to the Dublin III-Regulations, the border countries Greece and Italy shared most of the responsibility in dealing with incoming asylum seekers and any 'burden-sharing' among the EU member states has not been successfully accomplished. The incoming of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in the summer of 2015 underpins the public pressure in the German media to establish an EU-wide solidarity mechanism.

However, as the events in 2017 and 2018 demonstrated, the shared public claim that new solidary mechanisms are needed in order to deal with migrants has not resonated well in other EU member states. Especially the Viségrad countries, but also Austria with the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, have objected to implement any mandatory solidarity scheme to relocate refugees from Italy and/or Greece. The decisions by the Italian government to reject any landing of boats with saved migrants from the Mediterranean shows how contested any call to solidarity among EU member states is.

To sum up, we can learn two things from this. Firstly and academically, solidarity can be researched more openly by investigating it in public discourses. The discursive construction of solidarity approach can be applied in future studies regardless of a qualitative or quantitative analysis of claims in interviews, plenary debates or media texts to demonstrate how actors make sense of solidarity. Secondly and more importantly, the discussion on what solidarity means, how actors use it in their speeches, try to mobilise the public and justify political actions just started. It is a crucial task to scrutinise what the omnipresent call to solidarity means, what it implies and held politicians accountable for when, how and why they demand solidarity from or with whom.


"Stefan Wallaschek is a Research Associate in the interdisciplinary research group SOLDISK in the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Hildesheim. His dissertation is on ‘Mapping Solidarity in Europe. Discourse Networks in the Euro Crisis and Europe’s Migration Crisis.’ He can be reached by email ( and via twitter (@s_wallaschek)'