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Who’s the odd one out in Europe? Not us

France has left Germany's side and the public mood is heading South

The dynamics of the European Union are changing fast. To see this, take a look at the results of some recent opinion polls that compare attitudes across the member states. They were conducted by the well-regarded Pew Research Centre based in Washington DC. And focus first on the findings for Britain, France and Germany.

When asked whether respondents believed that European integration strengthened their economies, only 26 per cent of the British sample said “Yes”. This is not surprising – but wait. In France, the proportion replying in the affirmative was actually lower (22 per cent). And when asked whether respondents had a favourable view of the European Union some 43 per cent of British people said “Yes”, but the French again were less enthusiastic (41 per cent). In other words, Britain and France can be grouped together in broadly similar levels of disillusion.

Now turn to what the survey reveals of the current state of opinion in Germany. Again, at first glance, there are no surprises. Just over half of German public opinion (54 per cent) believes that European integration strengthens the economy, and 60 per cent are favourably disposed towards the European Union. But then remember the French result. For what is highly significant here is the wide gap between French and German attitudes compared with the fairly close alignment of British and French opinion. That is the new dynamic. And, in turn, these shifts will have big consequences for the politics of the European Union. Indeed, we are looking here at a historic change. The long-enduring Franco-German alliance, which has driven Europe along since the early 1950s, has come unstuck. It’s broken; it’s kaput. And it won’t easily be put together again.

It was founded in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when, on the Continent at least, the idea of the sovereign nation-state had become discredited. France and Germany had been at war three times in less than a century. Fascist glorification of the state – France under Marshal Pétain (1940-1945), Nazi Germany and Italy with Mussolini at the helm – had produced monstrosities. “Never again” was what many people on the Continent felt. Winston Churchill gave a speech in Zurich in 1946 recommending that France should lead Germany into a United States of Europe. And step by step, starting in 1952 with the creation of a common structure for the coal and steel industries, not only of the Ruhr, but also of France and other Continental countries, that was the direction in which Europe was to travel, culminating with the creation of a common currency area, the eurozone.

During this period, the Franco-German alliance worked well. The two countries were of broadly similar size. Both achieved satisfactory rates of economic growth. But then came German reunification. Suddenly, in terms of population, Germany became 25 per cent larger than France. And as a result of faster German growth since 1990, the gap has become even wider, with the German economy now producing 38 per cent more than the French. So France and Germany no longer form a partnership of equals, with France maintaining a sort of moral and intellectual superiority as it did for many years. Now there is a fractious relationship between a rich country and a neighbouring one with a badly managed economy.

There is one more important change that the opinion polls highlight. In terms of public attitudes, France is becoming more Mediterranean. Take the table that shows changes in the proportion of respondents who believe their economy is in good shape. In 2007, there was a lot of good cheer. In fact, the British were the most optimistic, with 69 per cent saying economic conditions were good. Then came Spain at 65 per cent (which was also enjoying a residential property boom) and Germany at 63 per cent. The score for the habitually morose French was 30 per cent. But since then, except in Germany, deep pessimism has taken over. The proportions now thinking that economic conditions are acceptable have fallen to 15 per cent in Britain, 9 per cent in France, 4 per cent in Spain and 1 per cent in Greece. But 75 per cent of Germans still think things are pretty good. In other words, as Pew’s commentary on its results notes: “The French public mood is now looking less like that in Germany and more like that in the southern peripheral nations of Spain, Italy and Greece.”

Now in due course these shifting beliefs in the efficacy of European integration and changes in mood will influence European negotiations. After all, the career politicians in Europe’s capitals, including London, Paris, Rome and Madrid, have only one rule of conduct – do whatever it takes to hang on to power or to regain it. And only Germany’s Angela Merkel has maintained her reputation for dealing with the economic crisis. Elsewhere, the loss of trust is substantial. Italy and France’s leaders have both dropped 23 percentage points in respect and in Spain the decline is 18 per cent.

From this, I draw the conclusion that European politics are in an unusually fluid state. The voting publics outside Germany clearly don’t think that the present arrangements are sacrosanct. In fact, contrary to received opinion in this country, now is a good time for Britain to seek to renegotiate the terms of her membership of the European Union. She could be surprisingly successful.