One of the rows that has been raging in the negotiations on a new Euro- pean constitution is whether the text should refer to Europe's Christian tradition. Poland, devoutly Catholic, wants it in; France, another mainly Catholic country but mindful of its large Muslim population, wants it out. But is there a deeper religious subtext at work in these arguments about Europe's future? Do the deep divisions about the extent of integration reflect an enduring power struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism?
Perhaps surprisingly, quite a few people think so and they can muster some in-triguing evidence. What are we to make, for example, of Scotland, where old religious rivalries are on display every time Celtic play Rangers? Opinion polls show that Scottish Catholics are far warmer towards membership of the euro than Scottish Protestants. And it cannot be coincidence, the schism theorists say, that the member states which have most stubbornly resisted the building of a new, centralised political entity in Europe are largely Protestant. Britain, Denmark and Sweden all remain stubbornly outside the euro while Switzerland, in successive referendums, has rejected EU membership altogether. The thread of history (if not of religion) tightens when you recall that two nations resisted the single currency founded by Charlemagne 1,200 years ago - the English and the Danes.
In fact, the Holy Roman emperor casts a long shadow over the European project, his name often invoked by those dedicated to building up Europe as a political force. Every year, for example, the Charlemagne Prize is awarded to the individual (Tony Blair on one occasion) deemed to have done most to further the cause of European unity. What a significant body of evangelical Protestant opinion fears, however, is that the EU is nothing less than an attempt to create a new Holy Roman empire - a Roman Catholic one, that is. They point out, for example, that two of the founding fathers of integration - Alcide De Gasperi of Italy and Robert Schuman of France - are being considered for canonisation by the Vatican.
And isn't it curious, they say, that so many of the most passionate modern supporters of integration - even in Britain - are Catholics? Hugo Young was a devout Catholic, as is Chris Patten, who delivered an address at his memorial service in Westminster Cathedral. Shirley Williams, another supporter of the European project, explicitly invoked Catholicism during the 1975 referendum campaign on whether Britain should remain in the EEC, saying: "We will be joined to Europe, in which the Catholic religion will be the dominant faith and in which the application of the Catholic social doctrine will be a major factor in every-day political and economic life."
Some Protestants go further, pointing to the badges of the EU as proof of its Catholic intent. There are those 12 stars on the flag (they will remain 12, however many states join) which, they say, represent the "corona stellarum duodecim of the woman of the Apocalypse" and are also the form of the halo that often appears above the Madonna in Catholic art.
Even more sinister, in their eyes, is the image of a woman riding a bull, the sub-ject of a sculpture outside the European Council building, a painting in the European Parliament building in Brussels and a mural in one of the parliament's other homes, in Strasburg. To the fundamentalist Protestant Eurosceptic, this is not the Europa of Greek legend but the harlot of Revelation 17, and the EU represents the final empire prophesied in Revelation, ruled by the Antichrist or the Beast. (On this reading, the new European president currently proposed in the draft constitution is a touch alarming.)
There are, it has to be said, a couple of flies in this holy ointment. One is that some Catholics also oppose the European project on religious grounds. They see the EU as a plot, not to put the Pope into Europe but to take him out of it, in fact to take God out of it altogether. Pope John Paul II himself has repeatedly railed against what he regards as the EU's materialistic Marxist agenda. A recent writer in Christian Order argued that the EU was actually putting into practice the blueprint of Antonio Gramsci, who wrote nine volumes about replacing "the remnant of Christian transcendentalism in the world with Marxist materialism".
The religious confusion increases, alas, when you record the undeniable fact that many of the most prominent British Eurosceptics are Catholics, including Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Ancram, Bill Cash, Charles Moore and Conrad Black. So Catholic is the "No" camp, in fact, that in a future referendum its offices would be left almost unmanned on holy days as young staffers headed for Mass.
Where does this leave us? My own suspicion is that commerce and power politics play a far larger role in British attitudes to Europe than religion, and have long done so. In Notker the Stammerer's The Life of Charlemagne, for example, the English appear only once, and then it is not in one of the many wars but as merchants. Henry VIII's break with Rome may have been a religious milestone, but it was also a deeply pragmatic business: he needed a divorce and saw the chance to plunder the monasteries at the same time. In the early 1970s, British voters opted to join the European Community on the grounds that it would be good for trade; the debate on the euro today is largely about economics.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that at the historical heart of British attitudes lies not religious fear or ambition but, as Bob Geldof once put it to me, "a determination to break up any European hegemony that emerged", whether the adversary was Philip II, Napoleon or Hitler.