THE EUROPEAN economic crisis has ceased making headlines. Yet it grinds on, bringing sluggish growth, unemployment and falling incomes to much of the continent — with little prospect of short-term relief. Now comes fresh evidence that hardship is having political repercussions: A Pew Research Global Attitudes Project survey documents “a crisis of confidence in the European project,” in which Europeans’ “faith in the European Union as an institution has fallen sharply.”
It’s no surprise that only 43 percent of Britons surveyed by Pew expressed a favorable view of the E.U.; Britain has always been a hotbed of euro-skepticism, and that current of thought is on the rise again. Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to address it through treaty revisions and a referendum in 2017 on continued E.U. membership.
Nor is it surprising that economic uncertainty and hardship would put other Europeans in a sour mood, or that they would blame it on incumbent politicians and institutions, the E.U. included. The union’s reputation is worst in the country that has suffered most — Greece. Pew’s survey contained the pleasant surprise that the E.U. still enjoys a 58 percent favorable rating in Italy, despite that country’s woes.
Most troubling, though, is the increasing anti-E.U. mood in France, which along with Germany is supposed to be one of the union’s two pillars. Pro-E.U. sentiment has plunged 19 points in France over the last year, and now stands at only 41 percent. Some 77 percent of the French say that European economic integration has “weakened” their country.
Actually, France is suffering because of its own failure to enact long-overdue structural reforms, without which it cannot compete within the European currency union. What matters politically, though, is that the French are blaming Europe, by which it implicitly means Germany, which has a clear upper hand in European affairs because of its economic strength.
Indeed, the Germans were the most satisfied European populace in the Pew survey. Large majorities approve of the E.U. and believe that it has benefited their nation economically. Small wonder: Germany is the only one of the E.U.’s 27 member countries where unemployment rates for both older and younger workers are now lower than they were five years ago.
Germany cannot let its contentment become complacency, lest an unhappy France align with Southern Europe’s debtors. Germany should insist on structural adjustments by its neighbors, yet remember that European unity, like all other political causes, must eventually deliver tangible benefits or it will fail.
The European Union’s great postwar accomplishment, for which it won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, has been to pacify a war-torn region and knit its contentious peoples together economically, socially and culturally. Today’s electorates, though, demand to know what the E.U., and its single currency, has done for them lately. In too many places, the answer seems to be: not much.