Wave of scepticism across Europe is now real threat to EU

Allister Heath
IT is not just in Britain that there is growing disenchantment with the European Union. Support for the project has also collapsed across Europe, in large part as a result of the recession and Eurozone crisis.

True, just 26 per cent of Brits believe that economic integration has strengthened the economy – but only 22 per cent of French, 11 per cent of Italians, 11 per cent of Greeks and 37 per cent of Spanish voters agree, according to a Pew survey. Of the large countries, only the Germans still think EU integration has been good for their economy – and even then just over half do (54 per cent).

There is a striking lack of trust in politicians’ ability to tackle the crisis, with those thinking their leaders are doing a good job stuck between a pathetic 20 per cent and an abysmal 37 per cent across the countries surveyed by Pew – with one glaring exception. In Germany, no fewer than 74 per cent believe Angela Merkel is doing a good job, even though her hegemony is also being threatened by an anti-euro party.

Attitudes in France are becoming especially negative, though not just about Brussels. The French are depressed and anti-everything: 91 per cent say their economy is doing badly; 67 per cent think Francois Hollande is doing a bad job (far more than said the same of Nicolas Sarkozy, who seems to be undergoing a bizarre rehabilitation); 77 per cent argue European economic integration has made things worse for France (up 14 points since last year); and 58 per cent now have a bad impression of the EU as an institution, up 18 points. The findings also reveal disaffection with the EU across the various nations among all groups, including the young.

The consensus view in the City is that the EU and Eurozone will muddle through, with minor changes and a gradual deepening of integration. That looks like an increasingly risky prediction: the EU is suffering from a growing and deepening crisis of trust across Europe, one that is not merely cyclical. The democratic deficit is glaring, and the gulf between German opinion and that of France, its erstwhile ally, is now unbridgeable.

True, some reforms have succeeded – Ireland has slashed its unit wage costs, and there
has also been progress in other countries. As Ian Stewart of Deloitte points out, all of the peripheral countries have cut their trade and budget deficits since 2009, often substantially, and the IMF hopes that all but Greece will boast a current account surplus this year. But the crisis is intensifying in other ways, economies are shrinking (and forcing up debt burdens) and unemployment is rocketing. At best, the region faces years of pain and stagnation, with at least one or two major Cyprus-style flare-ups.

Given all of that, the mainstream, naive view that a euro or even EU break up is inconceivable is wrong. The elites may be pro-EU but the public is deeply sceptical, sometimes for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong ones. The point is that in democracies, politicians eventually need to follow voters’ instructions and wishes – or new parties emerge and take over.

The UK remains the large country most likely to quit the EU. The chances of a Brexit are highest, paradoxically, if Ed Miliband wins the 2015 election, calls a referendum without attempting a proper renegotiation and faces a newly hardcore Eurosceptic Tory opposition. The chances are lowest if a Tory government is elected, pushes through some sort of renegotiation, and then backs a “yes” campaign, supported by Labour and Lib Dems. Where all of this will end nobody knows.

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