Last week the political elites of Europe took a momentous decision by converting what had hitherto been a treaty bound association of nation sates into a constitutional political entity, which would in effect create a United States of Europe (USE).
The two prime movers in this enterprise (which goes back to the origins of the European Union in the various economic treaties which began the European co-operation), have been France and Germany. The reluctant partner has been the United Kingdom.
Though continually sold as an economic project, the French and German political elites, and surreptitiously the British political elites have known it was ultimately a political one. What was its aim? To create a Untied States of Europe which would compete with the Untied States of America.
From Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac the French have been clear headed in recognising that the only way for the French to maintain any global influence is to create a European bloc run by them which harnesses the demographic and economic strength of Germany to create a counter to the emerging Anglo-Saxon dominance of the world.
This is the theory of the French rider riding the German horse. As de Gaulle made abundantly clear, he saw any British entry into the European community as being a Trojan horse to dilute this predominantly anti-Anglo Saxon (for which read anti-American) political union.
The British elites, traumatised by the loss of their imperial role, looked first, briefly, at the Commonwealth as providing a new arena to maintain their global role, but then made the fateful decision to throw their lot in with Europe. This was based on a number of factors.
First, with the seeming economic success of the countries of the European community in the post-war years as compared with Britain's indifferent economic performance, many came to see a free trade area with these successful countries as the route to economic prosperity.
The referendum on the European Common Market in the UK in the mid-1970s was sold and won as such. Even Margaret Thatcher was persuaded when signing the Single European Act in the 1980s that the transfer of sovereignty in various political areas to the EU was merely window dressing to get the other partners to agree to the creation of a larger common economic space to be run by classical liberal policies.
Not surprisingly, until the mid-1980s, the British Labour Party was vehemently opposed to the European Union. It was under the European Commission presidency of the French socialist Jacques Delors that the true economic colouring of the newly emerging EU became clear.
It was to preserve what is called the "social market economy", which in effect is to create a Colbertian corporatist and quasi-socialist state on the continent, in direct opposition to the classical liberal market economy that the British had increasingly embraced with the Thatcher revolution.
The dealings leading to the Maastricht treaty made this clear and led to the split on Europe in the Tory party and Thatcher's political assassination. The vehemently anti-European Labour Party, which recognised that the new Europe far from being a capitalist haven was to promote a quasi-socialist paradise, became its major champions.
But these economic twists and turns have been a smokescreen used by the Euro elites (mostly trained in that arch school of dirigisme, the French Ecole Nationale d' Administration) to create a dirigiste bureaucratic anti-American super state in Europe.
It was primarily a French project. Defeated Germany went along as a way to gain respectability and to redress that division of Germany that Hitler's misguided adventure had led. They have also seen a political union as tying down German nationalism as the best way to tame the passions which had led to two savage European wars.
Among the other members of the community, their adherence to this Franco-German "enterprise association" has been borne of their weaknesses.
Italy has gone along as it wished to unload the unending burden of subsidising its south -- the Mezzogiorno -- to a larger body of European taxpayers, while the other Mediterranean countries and Ireland have looked upon the subsidies, through the Common Agricultural Policy and other regional schemes they have obtained from Europe, as a drunk given free access to a liquor store.
Whilst the newest East European members of the EU see it as an insurance policy against their justified fear of the Russian bear next door.
But, it is only when the European project is viewed in a longer historical perspective that the true nature of the enterprise and the various contradictions it involves become clear.
Ever since the fall of Rome, Europe has been a disunited continent of warring states. Some (such as, Eric Jones in The European Miracle) have seen the ensuing economic competition between this system of states as being the essential reason for the processes which led to the rise of the West.
But the lodestar of the powers on the Continent has been the creation of another Holy Roman Empire. Given the wars of religion spawned by the Reformation, whether this would be a Protestant or Catholic empire was the initial bone of contention.
But, with the cooling of these intra-Christian passions in the modern age, the aim now is to create a Christian Holy Roman Empire. Hence the problem Turkey faces and will continue to face in joining the union, as was made abundantly clear by the French architect of the new European constitution, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
More important has been the history of Europe since the 16th century. Along with the rise of the West, this period has also been one for the struggle for the mastery of Europe between the various nation states that were created after the Renaissance.
Their relative success has been determined by their relative economic strength, measured by their GDP. After the relative decline of Spain in the 16th century, this was essentially a battle between the British and the French, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England.
They were at war between 1689 and 1697, 1702 and 1713, 1743 and 1748, 1756 and 1763, 1778 and 1783, 1793 and 1802, and 1803 and 1815, when the Battle of Waterloo seemed to settle the rivalry in favour of Britain.
As these wars spilled into their overseas territories, it also left Britain as the paramount global power, though the French had succeeded in allying with Britain's progeny in the New World, and stripping it of its most valuable imperial possession with the declaration of American independence in 1776.
But, as can be seen from Figure 1 (from my forthcoming In Praise of Empires, Macmillan) this predominance did not last. With the spread of the technology of the Industrial Revolution by the late 19th century two other rising economic powers, Germany and the US were challenging the British economic lead.
By 1913, the US was the predominant economic power in the world as measured by its GDP. But the struggle for the mastery of Europe continued, as the US largely stayed within its continental fortress.
The rising power of Germany twice tried to win mastery of Europe, in wars which spilled into the world, and which were only settled with decisive intervention by the then predominant economic (and ipso facto military power) the United States.
France and Germany are thus both defeated nations. They have both been undone by the dominance since the 19th century of the English speaking peoples of the world -- not least in the triumph of their language and culture across the world.
Little wonder that their elites have sought to counter this global Anglo-American dominance by attempting to create under the guise of an economic union a rival United States which they hope can compete successfully with this colossus on the world stage.
But will they succeed in their ambitions, and what of Britain? Will it join this USE, or will it recognise that it is best to remain part of the Anglo-American imperium which it helped to create and which has made its island story the most distinguishing feature of the world during the past millennium? These are the issues I take up in my next column