Is the new European constitution a blueprint for a United States of Europe - a fully fledged federation like the US on the other side of the Atlantic? Many of its continental proponents would say that is precisely the aim of the "treaty establishing a constitution" for the EU agreed by European leaders at Brussels last week.
Unfortunately for the constitution, that is a view currently shared by the large proportion of British voters who have no desire to become just one of 25 states in a USE. If they vote against ratification in the referendum Tony Blair has promised, then one of two things will happen. Either the constitution will be a dead letter and the enlarged EU will muddle along under old rules. Or - as a growing number of British voters seem to wish - Britain will leave the EU. Suddenly, a great deal hinges on Blair's ability to persuade voters that the new constitution is not a federalist document.
As someone who is routinely labelled a "rightwing historian" in the British press, I am probably one of the last people Guardian readers would expect to take the prime minister's side in this debate. But I do. Yes, I was a young Thatcherite in the 1980s, passionately agreeing that we had to stand up to the Soviet Union, Britain's over-mighty unions and the French socialists like Jacques Delors, who had retreated to Brussels having failed in Paris. Yes, I think she was right to be nervous about British membership of the exchange rate mechanism, and to be hostile to the idea of our joining European Monetary Union. If all that still makes me rightwing today, then I plead guilty (though I have always preferred to think of myself as a 19th-century liberal).
But there was never a time when I regarded departure from the EU as a serious option - provided, of course, that it remained a confederal structure primarily concerned with economic integration, in which the nation states retain power on non-economic matters. Does the new constitution change that? No. Indeed, the constitution changes very little about the way the EU works.
In some respects, the EU already has - and, indeed, has long had - a federal character. This is most obvious in the legal sphere. Article I-10 of the draft constitution simply reiterates what has long been an established principle - that EU law is superior to national law. Europe already has a convention of human rights, which is upheld by the court of human rights in Strasbourg. However, the constitution includes a new charter of fundamental rights, which it will fall to the Luxembourg-based European court of justice to interpret, thus strengthening its claim to be Europe's supreme court. It also creates a new category of cross-border crimes, which will become the responsibility of a European prosecutor, thus extending the EU's competence into the field of criminal law.
Moreover, the EU already has many of the political institutions of a federation: the council of ministers, representing the governments of the member states; a parliament; a central bank; and a permanent bureaucracy. The institutional changes made by the constitution are partly designed to give this proto-federation not just legal but actual personality. Thus the presidency of the quarterly European council will no longer be held successively by all the member states for six-month periods; it will be held by one individual, elected by the council members, for two-and-a-half years....
The new constitution does not significantly change the nature of the EU - it will enable it to do more of what it already does to integrate the European economy, national taxation apart. It represents a far less radical reform, in fact, than the Single European Act (which we Thatcherites supported) and the Maastricht treaty (which a Conservative government also signed).
The key question now for British voters is simply how the new constitution will benefit Britain. The point most commentators seem to have missed is that by changing the system of QMV, the constitution is actually quite advantageous to us, as it is to Germany, Britain, France and Italy - which, together, account for around 70% of the enlarged EU's GDP and 57% of its population.
Under the old system of weighted votes, the big countries were disadvantaged. Take Germany. In the pre-enlargement EU it accounted for around 22% of the population but had just 11.5% of votes on the council of ministers. Under the constitution, by contrast, any EU measure subject to QMV will be passed if it has the support of 55% of the member states, provided they represented at least 65% of the EU's population. The effect of this modification is significantly to increase the representation of the "big four" countries. From now on Germany has, in effect, 18% of council votes, Britain 13%. Therefore, a measure could have the support of all 21 of the other members, but it would fail if the big four opposed it.
On this crucial issue, the constitution gets my vote. Under the old arrangements, EU institutions under-represented the big four. That enabled the small countries to vote for subsidies that disproportionately benefited them and were disproportionately financed by the bigger countries. The new system is not ideal, but it is certainly an improvement.
Here, then, is a possible starting point for the apparently doomed campaign for a Yes vote. True, there is the predictable counter-argument that any measure that strengthens France and Germany must automatically weaken Britain. But this is based on a false reading of EU history. The reality is that without the new constitution, European integration will continue to be distorted by the self-interest of the smaller European states.