The Intergovernmental Conference in Brussels ended the only way it could end ­ in resounding failure. But it must be stressed that its outcome would have been just as negative even had the conference ended in adoption of the "Constitution" drawn up by the Convention. This is, after all, a document that contains absolutely no innovative element beyond the purely formal, and one that even the most Euro-sceptic of governments could happily have approved, secure in the knowledge that it contained nothing that would erode, in the slightest, its sovereignty. The only thing at stake in the tedious debating of the European "Constitution" that led up to the Brussels summit was the nature of the rules destined to govern a confederation of sovereign states. It was only failure to grasp the nature of the positions expressed in the "Constitution" that led some to affirm that the work of the Convention had been characterised by the emergence of federalist versus anti-federalist positions. In truth, the only contrapositions to emerge within the Convention and, still more openly, within the intergovernmental conference, were those between the petty power interests of the Union's various institutions, and of the various states of which it is comprised.

The fact remains that the way events evolved, and in particular the aggressiveness with which Spain and Poland defended their particular national interests, has highlighted the extent of this failure and thrown into sharp relief the true gravity of the threat hanging over the future of the process of European unification. This is certainly not to say that, in the wake of the Brussels summit, we will no longer hear the reassuring voices of those who, even before, insisted that Europe had grown and evolved through crises, that it would take time for all the states of the Union to develop a deep European consciousness, that the text of the "Constitution" must be put before the states repeatedly in order to have their approval, if necessary setting other Conventions the task of improving it. There are no bounds to self-mystification when it serves to justify great or minor positions of power, or simply to mask the desire to avoid splits that would upset existing balances. But these voices are destined to become weaker and weaker, and ultimately to be reduced, in the face of the harsh reality of the situation, to a mechanical reciting of empty words, to which no one will pay the slightest attention.

What remains of the Union, post Brussels, is an "institutional triangle", reduced to total paralysis by the twenty-five-member framework, a euro weakened and undermined by continued and blatant breaches of the Stability Pact and by the increasing remoteness of any prospect of European government of the economy, and an acquis communautaire whose significance is eroded daily by governments ever ready to blame Europe for all the unpopular decisions that they are forced to take in order to be able to go on managing power at national level.

The truth is that the EU has entered a comatose state. It has become imperative that those who hold Europe's fate dear ­ men and women of government, politicians, citizens ­ wake up to the fact that the problem of re-launching the process of European unification must be their first priority. Following Brussels, there has been a general realisation that revival of the process will be possible only if it takes as its starting point a limited group of states ­ a core built around the Franco-German axis and comprising the founder member states of Europe; in other words, those countries that share a decades-long history of integration. In the light of Berlusconi's declarations in the Belgian capital, it must, unfortunately, also be acknowledged that this core will, in the absence of an unlikely volte-face, initially not include Italy ­ an absence likely, however, to be very short-lived, given the crucial role played by Italy in all the stages of the process of European unification, given that Italy is bound to the other founder member states by strong ties of interdependence, and given the markedly pro-European consciousness of a considerable proportion of its politicians ­ on both the left and right ­ as well as of Italian public opinion.

But the founder member states must do more than merely seek to prod the other states into action. And they must also beware of launching initiatives liable to be choked, before they reach completion, by the intervention of the other states. Equally, they must avoid following the institutional patterns of the present Union. The core must not be based on the principle of cooperation, enhanced or otherwise, between sovereign states. While it must be clear that Franco-German entente will be important as a basis on which to found the federal core, it must also be acknowledged that this entente, in its current form, will crumble at the first obstacle, precisely because it is not based on the renunciation, by each party, of its sovereignty. The fact is, the process will be able to get under way again only if the founder states prove able to render their unity irreversible, by establishing, through the drawing up of a federal pact, an out-and-out European federal state.

If this is the objective to be achieved, then the founder member states cannot act within the framework of the Union, that is to say, with the consensus of the other EU member states. Naturally, the federal core will, as a new state, ask to be part of the existing European institutions. But the Brussels conference made it patently clear what we can expect from the countries that joined the European Union after the foundation of the ECSC. These countries, too, may certainly become part of the European federation, should they wish to do so, but only after the creation of the same, because any attempt to involve them in the process of its conception and birth will only render the latter impossible. We must never tire of reiterating that Europe, as long as it is a twenty-five-member Union, will never be able to take the decisive step towards its own political unification. A twenty-five-member Europe is a fragmented and divided Europe, and any insistence on the need to keep it intact is tantamount to an assault on its unity. For this reason, the real problem is not one of how to repair splits or avoid the emergence of new divisions. European unity must either stem from the Six, or inevitably die. It is thus crucial not to react with alarm to the prospect of a split within the Union, because this is precisely what is required ­ but it must be a split that constitutes a genuine premise for unity.

It is, of course, a very difficult step. But we must be aware of what lies ahead of Europe if it is not taken ­ and that is, as some have already begun to envisage, a future of utter decadence in which the European continent will be an area united only by its common military subjugation to the United States and by the tenuous and ephemeral sharing of interests deriving from its status as a large free trade area. Other than this, Europe will be broken down into a series of spheres of interdependence, each in conflict with the others and differently oriented towards the rest of the world. We will probably see the emergence of a Nordic area, made up of the countries of Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Germany, following the dissolution of its special link with France, will seek to establish a sort of economic sub-imperialism over the other countries of central-eastern Europe. The United Kingdom will consolidate its role as aide-de-camp to the United States, in America's endeavour to police the globe and to maintain some (precarious) sort of world order, and will keep its foothold in Europe primarily ­ as has always been the case ­ in order to be better placed to suffocate any weak movements that may be made in the direction of European political union; France will find itself isolated and will seek to make up for this isolation through political rhetoric inspired by memories of its past greatness; Italy will encourage entry of the Balkan states into the Union and will seek to establish advantageous relations with at least some of the latter; and Spain will endeavour to strengthen its historical influence over the countries of Latin America. The result will be a further spread of nationalism ­ a mean and petty form of nationalism, certainly, given that the era of nationalism has now been definitively consigned to the past, but one that will still have the capacity to render irreversible the current deepening of the differences that divide Europe's states. Europe will see the rebirth, albeit dampened by the European nations' mutual dependence on the United States, of a provincial kind of power politics. The process of European unification will end and Europe will exit the scene, leaving the historical stage clear for other protagonists in the global equilibrium and for other, developing, centres of civilisation.

This is the nature of the choice now facing the heirs of Schuman, Adenauer, De Gasperi and Spaak.