A Pew Research Center study shows public support for the European project has fallen and distrust between countries is growing. And the most down on the EU are the French. This report from John Laurenson in Paris.
It was Tsar Nicholas the First of Russia who invented the phrase "the sick man of Europe". He said it about the Ottoman Empire; and the Ottoman Empire duly collapsed. Unfortunately for the Tsars, their imperial monarchy collapsed even quicker. So what is the moral of this story? We are all a lot sicker than we think.
Who is the 'sick man of Europe' today?
Europeans have long enjoyed calling each other "Sick Man." Sometimes it was those poorly Portuguese, sometimes the ailing Germans. Sometimes the peaky Italians, the retching Greeks or the French uttering, apparently, a terminal whimper. Now - some sort of triumph of the European project this - it is the European Union itself which is ill. "The New Sick Man of Europe - The European Union" is the title of the mercilessly long and depressing Pew Institute study of how Europeans see themselves.
Only the Germans still believe in the European idea
Pew talked to 7,646 people in eight EU countries in March this year. Their conclusion is that no-one believes in the European Union any more; except the Germans. And that the process of European integration that was supposed to bring down barriers between European countries has had the opposite effect.
Belief that European economic integration has strengthened the economy slipped right across Europe from 2012 to 2013. It decreased five points in Germany. Now only 54 percent of Germans think economic integration is making us richer. But that's the only place in the survey where most people think this. In Britain it's now 26 percent, in Greece and Italy 11 percent. France registered the biggest drop in confidence in the economic benefits of the EU, at 22 percent they are now more disillusioned than the British.
French approval of the EU is the lowest on the continent
Hollande might have completed one year in office, but he and his countrymen don't find much to smile about
French approval of the EU as an institution has also plummeted; approval ratings are 19 percent down on last year. That is much more than any other country, again overtaking the British.
When the French have to look to Britain to be convinced that the European Union is a good idea, you know you're in trouble.
And the further you delve into this extraordinary opinion poll the more you get the feeling that – although it's Greeks and Spanish and Italians who have been doing more of the getting out there and burning things – there is something very much up in France. Or rather down.
The French are negative about the economy, with 91 percent saying it's doing badly. They are negative about their leadership: 67 percent think President Francois Hollande is doing a lousy job handling the challenges posed by the economic crisis, a criticism of the president that is 24 points worse than that of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who they also hated.
And they no longer believe in the European project, with 77 percent believing European economic integration has made things worse for France. In fact you wonder if there's anything the French still like. Sex perhaps? "Oh can’t really be bothered." Cheese perchance? "Yeah, well it's OK…"
Who is the most untrustworthy in Europe?
But the Greeks pip them to the post when it comes to staring their economic debacle square in the face. 99 percent say the situation is bad. You wonder which newspapers the other one percent were reading.
Last but not least, the Pew research throws up some wonderful facts about the way Europeans view each other inside of the merry band of brothers that is the European Union.
Which is the most trustworthy country? Everyone said Germany, except the Greeks. They think it's the Greeks.
Which is the least trustworthy country? Ah now you’re talking! Britain said France, France said Greece, Germany had those "shifty" Greeks and Italians neck-and-neck. Greece said Germany.
The even-handed Poles, after having said the Germans were the most trustworthy Europeans, then balanced that out by saying that they were also the least trustworthy. The Spaniards said it was the Italians and the Italians – well hats off to the Italians – they said the least trustworthy of the whole bally lot are definitely… the Italians.