Between "less interdependence" and "more integration", the needle of the scale is tipping toward the former. Is this inclination definite? Certainly not. If there is no guarantee that a United States of Europe will ever see the light of day, it is neverthless not written that the conflicts within Europe that have triggered the euro crisis will lead to the break-up of the EU – or worse, to a war.

The urgency of the problems is forcing us to think about them clearly and coldly, to abandon our prejudices and our consoling visions, and to use our imaginations not to misrepresent the present but to picture the future. Most importantly, any proposed European project must make it through a public debate and with the consent of the European peoples affected.

It is no longer possible to create a Europe without Europeans. It is they who must decide if they want to create this Europe, and, if necessary, how. By such a Europe I understand a sovereign geopolitical state. A democratic European state, with limits and institutions that need to be defined. In practice, that goes beyond the letters of the international treaties among Europeans.

The consent of the peoples of Europe

Today, it is the member states that say what the European Union is, and, in particular, what it is not. That leads to a double loss of legitimacy for democracy: at the national level, where parliaments have sunk to a historical nadir, where the legitimacy of governments fades from day to day and where political parties are nothing more than shadows of their former selves; at the community level, with a discredited Commission that, defying ridicule, displays a semblance of executive power, flanked by a Parliament elected from national lists, which defends national interests, and whose powers are very different from those that the Western tradition assigns to legislatures.

The beneficiaries of this situation are anti-democratic or frankly racist forces that use Europe as a bogey-man to harvest political fruit and attract voters. Built on the ruins of the world wars to ensure peace, foster progress and advance freedom, the European ideal has produced the opposite. Collateral damage: the Europe Union is undermining its values and devaluing what it was meant to protect.

Several remedies that are very different may be able to bridge the divide between interdependence and integration. To work, each of them needs the consent of the peoples of Europe. The time has come to ask Europeans if they want to bring their country into a union – yes or no. By referendum. And not by one of these national consultations in which the voters of a Member State approve or reject (in the latter case, voters are called to the polls solely to approve the text) a treaty that is unreadable and, therefore, that remains unread.

A force for democracy in the world

This referendum among the twenty-seven Member States of the European Union (from next year, twenty-eight), which should take place at the same time and under the same rules throughout the European community, would pose the fundamental question: "Are you for or against the emergence of a European State comprising all member states of the European Union or of some of these states (specify which)?"

It would, of course, be a consultative ballot. But the voices in chorus of hundreds of millions of Europeans would have a powerful knock-on effect on the choices of the political leaders at the national level.

Whatever the outcome, we would finally have a clear picture of the degree of Europhilia among Europeans. Which is something that the Europhiles have always carefully avoided. It should, however, be clear by now that if we can one day unify Europe or a part of Europe for good, to make of it a force for democracy in the world, it will happen only on the ashes of Europeanism. On the ashes of its complacent paternalistic reflexes and its fundamentally elitist and undemocratic culture. The result is that, 55 years after the Treaty of Rome, not only do we not have a unified Europe, but we are exciting base emotions and tearing out the liberal and democratic roots of its member countries.

This article is an excerpt from the chapter “Europe for the Europeans", published in the Nomos & Khaos 2012 report from the Italian research institute Nomisma.