*The article is also available in German
“During the coronavirus crisis, the European virtue of reliability has fallen by the wayside. (…) The virus is already putting too many lives in danger. Please let us prevent it from endangering European solidarity as well.” This is how journalist Tim Herden framed the alleged lack of solidarity of the Polish people after Poland had decided to close its borders for cross-border commuters. Poland’s action, thus the tenor of the commentary in the Tagesschau – the evening news of the German public broadcaster ARD – showed that the country “apparently does not care” about persons in Germany who are need of long-term care. He thus laid the blame for Germany’s nursing and care crisis on Poland’s doorstep, with the condescending conclusion that it is the Polish people who do not respect European solidarity.
Reality, however, looks different: every day, about 500,000 women from East-Central Europe take care of people in Germany who are ill or in need of long-term care. The German health care and social systems depend on them. Due to the corona crisis, many of these women have returned to their home countries. For now, border closures prevent them from entering Germany again. As a consequence, until Easter roughly 200-300,000 people in Germany who are elderly or in need of care did indeed remain unprovided for.
This care crisis, however, says less about the values of Poland or other East-Central European countries than about the shaky and unfair foundations of the German (and Austrian, British, etc.) care regimes.
Experts have been drawing attention to Western Europe’s care crisis for many years, pointing to the need to find sustainable and dignified solutions for caregivers and persons requiring care alike. Such solutions would include a better care infrastructure, adequate remuneration, regulated working hours, and contractual protection. This applies both to those who work in public long-term care facilities and to the so-called live-in carers who work in German households.
For years, many European countries have been displacing the issue of care work from the political to the private sphere: under the pretext of upholding civil liberties – “The state should not interfere with private matters!” – governments have been shirking their responsibilities in West and East. Families are left to sort out their care situations themselves. Those who can afford it hire a carer from East-Central Europe or the Philippines, often without labour contracts and with exploitative working hours. Czech sociologist Zuzana Uhde calls it „distorted emancipation“: the emancipation of women in the so-called core countries (i.e., the rich countries within the EU) is enabled by migrant carers. In other words: a German woman can go out to do paid work because her Polish domestic employee – often illegally – takes care of her invalid father.
Be it for seasonal work, such as the annual asparagus harvest, or for year-round nursing – core countries like Germany deliberately try to lure workers away from their East-Central European home countries. “Are we fixing our long-term care crisis at the expense of other countries?” A documentary by the public West German Broadcasting Corporation (WDR) asked this critical question a while ago. Clearly, push and pull factors come together: for many Eastern European women, jobs and wages in the West are and continue to be the better alternative.
This is the problem we have to tackle if the term “European solidarity” is to mean anything. We need to shed a critical light on class relationships and regional disparities in Europe, as well as the responsibilities of the core countries. We must expose those structures that are at the origin of the disastrous state of health care and elderly care systems at the periphery of the EU. This includes distortions and conditionalities that are embedded into the very architecture of the EU and work in favour of richer countries. Think, for example, of the Maastricht deficit criteria, or the political influence of the foreign direct investments most East-Central European countries depend on. These instruments directly or indirectly impact how countries structure their fiscal policies, including labour market and health care policies. Of course, we also must not ignore the responsibilities and the often class-blind ideologies of governments in the peripheral countries.
The corona crisis makes clear what many have been saying for years: care regimes in Western Europe are under considerable pressure; they are not sustainable and are based on gender inequality as well as regional and class-based inequalities.
Thus, if we want to ask what solidarity means in a European context, lecturing (the way it has been done in Tagesschau and many other media) is not the way to go about it. Rather, we must finally start asking fundamental questions: what is the relationship between values and economic interest, between the individual decisions of East-Central European carers and the constraints and compromises under which these decisions are made?
Without a better social recognition of care professions, without a new social contract that defines the relationship between state, market, and families, without critically taking stock of transnational power relations and dependencies, there will be no sustainable care regime in Europe. And there will be no European solidarity – which, as the coronavirus crisis shows, is needed now more than ever.
Eszter Kováts is a PhD student in political science at ELTE University, Budapest. She is currently a visiting scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin. Between 2012 and late 2019 she was in charge of the gender programme of the FES for East-Central Europe.