Mary Dejevsky: The tide is turning on Europe

The prospects of the EU look at least as healthy, if not healthier, than those of Britain and the US
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The Independent Online

What might it take to make the British embrace Europe? A decade or so ago, I believed that all we Euro-enthusiasts had to do was wait and let a combination of Euro-railing and demographics take care of it. A new generation of Britons, used to travelling on the Continent, free to work there, as at home in Barcelona and Prague as in Manchester or Edinburgh, would wrap themselves happily in the European flag. A "yes" vote to Britain joining the euro could be only a matter of time.

The innocence of it! The consensus of surveys and my own observations suggest that today's under 25s are more insular, more home-oriented and often more defensively nationalistic than their elders for whom Europe was a novelty. They take the freedom to live and work in Europe so much for granted that they see no reason to go there for the experience, preferring more exotic gap-year destinations. This year's chic family holidays are being taken in Britain. New Labour stopped trying to speak French in public long ago.

And yet ... The tide of Euro-phobia and Euro-neglect may at last be turning. Last month the European Commission's polling service, Eurobarometer, published its latest findings under a headline so utterly incredible that I read it twice: "UK satisfaction with EU membership soars." The EU's popularity among Britons, it said, had reached its highest level since the late Eighties, rising by more than 12 per cent in just the previous two years. This was despite - or was it because? - the European Union had almost vanished from British headlines with the demise of the ill-fated constitution.

Now, as much of the EU enjoys its customarily langorous summer break, the once-ailing economic indicators are recovering. It is not simply that France and Germany have started to emerge from almost a decade of stagnation; it is that the eurozone is suddenly outstripping the US and Britain in the very market-oriented measures of success that have given them bragging rights for so long.

I grant that it may be hard to get used to the idea that Germany and France are registering higher economic growth rates and a higher rate of job creation than the countries they classify as "Anglo-Saxon". But that is what the figures say for the first two quarters of this year. I grant, too, that the official figures for unemployment in the US and Britain are lower than for much of the eurozone. But unemployment figures can be massaged in many different ways.

The truth is that for the first time for at least a decade, the economic fortunes of Europe, as judged by the measures favoured by the "Anglo-Saxons", are moving in the right direction. If you include the categories in which the Europeans have long performed as well or better than the "Anglo-Saxons" - productivity (per worker per hour), leisure time and facilities, and that nebulous area, "quality of life" - then the prospects of the EU start to look at least as healthy, if not healthier, than those of Britain and the United States.

Which is quite a turnaround. So long as Britain outperformed the French and Germans in the categories we (and the US) decreed to be the indicators of economic success, our leaders felt entitled to preach the benefits of "our" economic model to the unfortunate citizens of the Eurozone (and to us). Mr Blair and his Chancellor let slip no opportunity to do so. A slightly Europeanised version of the American way of doing things - low tax, employee flexibility, and a limited social safety net - was what the Europeans were told to aim for, and what we British were told to be content with.

It is true that the Europeans have quietly made changes. Employment in Germany has become more flexible, and the safety net a fraction less enveloping. German shops are now open longer hours. France's elite institutions of higher education are being prised open (a crack) and recruitment to first jobs is starting to be addressed. But, as those Britons who defied fashion to holiday in the eurozone this year will know, they have mostly done so without losing their enviable quality of life.

With Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, declaring - as she did yesterday - that Germany is no longer "the sick man of Europe" - the European summits this autumn promise some interesting encounters.

Will the countries of the eurozone take quite so kindly to their lessons in market economics from the British (courtesy of Harvard and the Chicago School)? Might the roles of professor and pupil be exchanged?

Of course, a slew of (US and British) economic commentators has forecast, all too predictably, that Europe's upturn will only be temporary, that inflationary pressures are massing on the horizon, and that we Euro-enthusiasts should not be seduced by pretty figures that buck the "underlying trend". And it will doubtless take more than a reversal of economic fortunes on the Continent for the British to swoon lovingly into the arms of Europe.

But there are signs that Britons may be more amenable than they were to seduction. Last week a survey conducted by YouGov.com for The Spectator contained two findings that did not sit at all well with the Atlanticist complexion of that magazine. The first was that more than 85 per cent of those asked thought that Tony Blair should abandon his anti-terrorist alliance with George Bush.

The second was that, instead, Britain should either go it alone (27 per cent favoured this option) or throw in its lot with, wait for it, the Europeans. This was the response of 45 per cent of those asked, and 50 per cent of those sampled in London. So much for the "special relationship".

Supposedly pro-European politicians of both major parties frequently tell us that Britain's uniquely triangular relationship with the US and the European Union is not, and should not be, a "zero sum game". In other words, we do not need to sacrifice the historically close relationship with the US in order to be closer to Europe - and vice versa. This may be the orthodoxy that Atlanticist politicians like to peddle, but is it really true?

Thanks to cheap air travel and long holidays, more Britons now than ever before have first-hand knowledge of both the United States and Europe. This latest survey suggests that only a minority (fewer than one in three) thinks that a country of Britain's size and strength can realistically go it alone. The rest sees a choice between the US and Europe. And while Europe may not - yet - be the object of our national affections, British patience with the US seems to be exhausted. In the end, distaste for US policies and a particular US president is driving the British into Europe's arms, however fiercely we play hard to get.

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