Solidarity debate without civil society?

Published on EurActiv, 22 May 2018

Guest Blog Post by Jana Hainsworth is president of Social Platform, the largest civil society alliance fighting for social justice.

This year’s State of the Union conference took on the theme of solidarity. The background paper asked some pertinent questions: solidarity on what, by whom for whom, and how? But as a first time attendant at one of these high-level gatherings I was shocked at how spectacularly the event missed the point of solidarity and how, conceivably, such an event can actually contribute to the breakdown of solidarity on our continent.

The European University Institute clearly excels as a seat of learning and enquiry. How else could it attract 4 heads of state and practically all the leaders in the EU institutions who matter? Surely not the prospect of spending a weekend exploring the delights of Florence or its surrounding Tuscan hills? To be fair, many speakers referred to the importance of this event as an occasion to reflect on the state of the Union, and welcomed the ‘meeting of minds’ between Europe’s top academics and political elite. Some of the interventions were inspirational. I felt privileged to be among so many past and current architects of the EU project. I agreed with much as what was said. Why wouldn’t I? I’m a committed European whose entire professional career has revolved around the EU.

The problem is that solidarity is much easier to talk about in abstract intellectual terms than it is to realise in practice. Take the event itself. In every single workshop speakers disregarded the time limit leaving little or no time for debate. In one, the chair said the conversation on the top table was so interesting he didn’t need to open it up to the floor. Tajani, Juncker, Draghi and most of the opening speakers went way over time. During one debate people continued talking at the back of the room, despite the chair’s pleas that panellists couldn’t hear themselves speak (Palazzo Vecchio has beautiful frescos but very poor acoustics). Just one in every two speakers was female, most of them I have to say were far more articulate and to the point than the men. So yes, we can talk about solidarity but when it comes to putting the brakes on our own egos and self-importance it gets much more difficult.

Whilst the great and the good were meeting in Florence, two Eurosceptic parties were putting together a government in Italy. Orban meanwhile had his inauguration speech centred on Brussels-bashing. (High ranking politicians from any Eastern European country were noticeably absent in Florence.). There was much talk about the need to put a human face on Europe and to invest in social protection but no representative of civil society, citizens groups or trade unions was invited to contribute to the debate. We are that human face of Europe. Civil society organisations are critical partners and a direct link to citizens. Without engaging and listening to us the solidarity debate will remain abstract.

As said several times during the event, now is not the time for ‘business-as-usual’. Eurosceptics smell hypocrisy and feed off it. It’s not enough to talk of values, they need to be lived by how we act, speak and listen, and, most of all, how we lead. That has to be our battle ground if Europhiles are to win the hearts and minds of citizens at the elections a year from now.