In yesterday's FT former French president Nicholas Sarkozy suggests reforming the European Union, and then offering Britain the chance to rejoin it. This does not look a practical proposition, but it is a useful thought experiment. How should the Union be reshaped?
First of all, we must get past the current British obsession with Brexit. This is shaping the debate in an unhelpful way. Remain supporters are too uncritical of the current EU. Of course they say that the EU should be reformed, but their ideas about how are as sketchy and muddled as Brexit campaigners' ideas about Britain outside the union. And the EU has much deeper problems than the sorts of things that were upsetting British voters. It is not the right place to start when trying to understand where the EU needs to change.
Indeed the EU is beset by three more serious problems than Brexit: the Eurozone, refugees, and populist governments. These are the issues that most concern Mr Sarkozy. He wants a separate governance structure for the Eurozone that will allow further integration of economic governance. He wants a more coherent immigration policy, with a consistent, contribution-based, system of entitlements to state benefits. And he wants to reduce the competencies of the EU Commission so that it bumps into national governments less often.
But we need to take a step back further than even that. Just what is it the we need the EU to do? Its foundation is the idea that European nations benefit from a degree of political and economic integration. There are two groups of overlapping benefits: political stability and peace; and higher material standards of living.
Political stability and peace remain solid achievements for the EU. That these should not be taken for granted can be seen from the wars involving the former Yugoslavia, and from the aggression emanating from Russia. Ethnic tensions can still lead to wars. States with powerful armies can still seek to get their way by force, allowing corrupt elites to perpetuate their power. Furthermore the EU has been part of a dramatic extension of constitutional, democratic government, firstly in Spain, Portugal and Greece, and then in the former Soviet bloc. But these gains are fraying. Populist governments in Poland and Hungary are undermining constitutional democracy. Other governments are failing to deal with corrupt elites. The EU struggles to confront external threats, because to do so it needs consensus - and weaker governments from smaller powers are tempted to use Russia's aid in propping up their corrupt elites. Other countries are too far from the source of trouble to show much solidarity.
One striking thought emerges from this. To confront these problems the EU needs more political integration, not less. It needs a more powerful executive with more EU funds to allocate; it needs more power to police the use of these funds, and be able to apply sanctions to countries that fail to meet standards. It also needs to forge tough deals with such troublesome neighbours such as Russia and Turkey. It needs new institutions to confer democratic legitimacy. It probably needs integrated armed forces. The founding fathers of the EU (before it was even the EU) always foresaw this, but others, led by Britons, have been in denial.
Times have changed. The biggest political problem for Europe is posed by the rise of Russia, with its championing of old-fashioned corrupt elites and nationalistic politics. But Russia is incomparably weaker than the old Soviet Union. The latter could not be confronted without US leadership. The US is in retreat, but, nuclear weapons apart, Russia is not so strong that a politically strengthened Europe, based on Germany and France, cannot stand up to it. Russia's attempts to undermine Europe provide the pretext to unite it. The smaller states of eastern Europe need to understand the choice between a Russian-aligned, weak and corrupt system, or joining the road to something much better. I suspect that they already do if you push them - and that gives a strengthened EU the basis for a mandate.
Economically though, the case for more integration is not so clear. Free movement of people and trade has surely been of enormous benefit. Some interesting work has shown how even brain drains can help the countries losing workers - the emigrants are replaced, causing greater social mobility. But the pace of change has caused enormous stresses. And, in some countries at least, regional inequalities have become a major headache (Britain is perhaps the worst - if one puts Italy's primarily down to weak institutions in the south). This is a complex problem, but I think that greater regional and local autonomy is critical, and the union's third great freedom - movement of capital - may need some hedging. I suspect that the real problem is not the balance of power between the EU and member states, but the balance of power within the larger nation states. But some of the EU's single market rules are getting in the way - the limitations on state aid for example.
Then there is the Euro zone. This deserves, and will get, a post (or several) in its own right. Suffice to say that though most Anglo-Saxon commentators regard this project as the essence of madness, it is not dead yet. I believe that floating currencies tend to reinforce and increase inequalities - an argument I need to develop another day - but that fixed exchange rates and weak political governance are a toxic combination, as has been proved on countless occasions, in and out of the Eurozone. The political stresses brought about by the crises in Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and Spain show a degree of failure. (There are successes too: France and Germany have experienced steadier and more equitable growth than Britain has outside the Euro). Mr Sarkozy is right that some form of further integration of economic management is warranted, but a reconciliation between French and German approaches will be needed to make this work.
So where is all this leading? In the extreme France and Germany might lead a new United States of Europe, with much deeper political integration, based on a proper constitution, and, perhaps, a democratically elected president. This will no doubt be tied to the Euro currency area. This new federal state would be surrounded by a looser economic zone, with surrounding countries participating on an à la carte basis.
An interesting question is whether less extreme versions of this idea could unlock enough of the benefits to make it worthwhile. There would be a highly integrated core of countries, alongside a number of less integrated ones.
Where would that leave Britain? Much as I would like my country to be part of further European political integration, politically the country is completely unready for it. Brexit may even be helpful for Europe in the long term, as the country has been a major brake on political integration. If the country does join in, it must be on the basis of a project that is primarily political, not economic. That would be a sea change from how the EU and its forerunners were presented to the British public (by its supporters, that is; opponents have always painted it as a political project with the real goal of a super-state). More Britons are ready for that than used to be supposed, but they are still a minority. But as Britain finds that leaving the EU is no answer to its deeper political and economic problems, and more Britons equate the "good old days" with a suitably idealised membership of the EU (just as they do now with the days before membership) perhaps that might change. On the other hand, for Millennia inhabitants of our island have had some notion of special destiny, separate from our continental neighbours to whom we owe so much. For now we are destined to be observers rather than shapers.