“Tell me what you drive and I'll tell you who you are.” Since it began to be mass produced, the car is not only the most ubiquitous means of transport in our lives; it is also a social indicator and reveals our personalities. But today, when the shedding of 8,000 jobs announced by French automaker PSA is but the latest in a series of negative announcements for the European car industry, the question posed to our continent is — “Tell me what car you produce and I'll tell you who you are.”

The PSA Group, which combines the Peugeot and Citroën brands, is losing €200 million per month and is forced to take drastic action. Several months ago, on the other side of the Rhine, the German Volkswagen Group, Europe's leading auto manufacturer, maker of Audi, Škoda and Seat, announced that its employees would receive a €7,500 bonus. The first finding of the European car industry — the German model is more efficient.

The second finding explains the first — with the crisis, Europeans have stopped buying medium-sized cars in favour of smaller models and also bigger or luxury vehicles. Consumer spending on cars thus reflects the widening gap in social inequalities. PSA, which had bargained on the mid-sized cars, is paying the price. Volkswagen, the incarnation of quality and high-end products, is profiting – as are BMW or Mercedes, the other auto manufactures that are doing well.

PSA does, however, offer small-sized vehicles that sell reasonably well. But they are produced in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia where production costs are lower. Volkswagen is also well-implanted in both of these countries. Include the huge Dacia-Renault plant in Romania and the new Mercedes operationsat Kecskemét in Hungary, the Fiat plant in Kragujevac, Serbia and that adds up to the third finding: the core of European auto building is inevitably moving East. The transfer of the production of Fiat Pandas from Poland to Italy is an exception, made at the cost of redefining the benefits enjoyed at the firm.

Historic bastions of working-class culture such as Birmingham (Austin, Leyland), Boulogne-Billancourt (Renault) and soon Aulnay-sous-Bois (Citroën) have disappeared while many others, such as the Fiat plant in Turin have lost some of their significance. In a context in which Europe is becoming deindustrialised, the automobile sector is the symbol of the challenge posed to ensuring prosperity for all parts of the continent while keeping in mind the interests of all the countries in terms of employment, of national riches and of individual standards of living. That is, to develop the economy and employment without any social dumping within the EU.

From this derives the fourth finding: by closing their factories in Western Europe to open or expand them in the East, the major industries are fuelling misapprehensions and jealousy existing between citizens of the Western and the Eastern parts of the Union. Some reactions in France at the PSA announcement are reminiscent of the Polish plumber (coming to steal French jobs) used as a boogieman during the 2005 referendum on the EU Constitution.

And the final finding: the automobile sector is symptomatic of Europe's inability to adapt to the transition towards sustainable development. At a time when the role of the car is called into question in the name of urban planning, of quality of life and of the environment, it can seem paradoxical to complain about a decline in auto production. This is simply because no alternative has been clearly defined in terms of industrial development and employment. Europeans want to reduce their CO2 emissions but they are prepared neither to produce clean energy independently nor to replace jobs in their ancient industries for jobs in the new economy.