Leading Article: Europe must not outrun the people

WHEN people talk about a "two-speed" Europe they are usually referring to the real or imagined division between those countries speeding towards greater union and those - i.e. Britain - determinedly applying the handbrake.

Europe is indeed running at two speeds, but in a different sense. At one level ministers meet and deliberate - about enlargement, about the redistribution of regional funds, about the launch of a single currency. But this ministerial superstructure still has a flimsy base. At the level of real lives, Europe still does not figure much. On the ground people think nationally about politics and politicians. Or not: turnout in the French regional elections the other day was poor, with as many as four out of ten voters abstaining.

In this country, we too have our problems with apathy, especially in local politics. But national government does seem to reflect reasonably accurately the rumbling Euroscepticism among the population at large. For all the rhetoric from Messrs Blair, Brown and their colleagues, it is not clear, three months into the British presidency, that this government is really very different from its predecessor in terms of core policies on Europe. Meanwhile, the gap between popular sentiment and European policy is probably more marked in those countries, France and Germany especially, where official enthusiasm for the project of European union is at its greatest. It is hard, looking at Germany in this election year (the contest for control of the lower chamber of the German parliament is set for October), not to be anxious about the distance between popular feeling and the policies likely to be adopted, whoever wins.

The German public is full of misgivings about losing the mark. That's not surprising: it has been the great symbol of post-Nazi German identity. For the Germans, the domestic strength of the mark - backed by a federal constitution and an independent central bank - declared that old history had ended and a new, honourable German history had begun. A clear majority of Germans remains unconvinced that peaceful relations or better trade with neighbours demands the abolition of the Mark.

Germans admire the consistency and fortitude shown by successive French administrations in backing a strong franc, but that does not convince them that monetary wedding bells ought to be ringing yet. As for the Italians, even Chancellor Kohl, the arch-enthusiast for European monetary integration, has found it hard not to patronise the Prodi government. Whatever it has accomplished in terms of technical preparation for EMU, neither Italian party politics nor that country's economic constitution yet look fit for the long haul.

Yet here comes Gerhard Schroder charging up the polls as the Social Democrats' standard bearer in the federal elections and he turns out to be no people's tribune in the matter of Germany and Europe. He is a strong candidate for a number of reasons, several of them negative. Helmut Kohl, however much Germans respect his achievement over unification, has been in office too long; he has presided over policy failure - for how else can 5 million unemployed be described? The Chancellor has seemed incapable of responding to widespread criticism of sclerosis in Bonn.

We must not get carried away by the Germans' enthusiasm for the Blair phenomenon. Herr Schroder may be less "left-wing", less close to the trade unions than his SPD rival Oskar Lafontaine but that does not make any less a corporatist, a consensus builder. He is in many ways an admirable product of the solid and solidarist nature of post-war German democracy. There is nothing in his record, as a successful SPD leader in Lower Saxony, to suggest he wants to break up the formula which has carried Germany through the half century. He is a "Blairite" only insofar as he promises political renewal in Bonn/Berlin. In electing Herr Schroder, the Germans would, in many senses, be choosing a conservative - no radical thoughts from his camp about the federal constitution.

The domestic political choices of the Germans are, strictly speaking, none of our business. What ought to concern Britain, as fellow members of the European Union and as, in a symbolic sense, guarantors of the post- war settlement, is the legitimacy of decisions taken by national leaders. It is in our interests, and the interests of liberal democracy that as the German election campaign gets into gear, Germans are given a convincing sense that their preferences and their anxieties - especially over European integration - are recognised and reflected in their choice of candidates.