It is a bad time for the EU, and yet it coincides with the moment when the 15 member states are set to rewrite the founding treaties, setting a new direction for the millennium.
As Europe's leaders gear up for the Inter-Governmental Conference, to be launched in Turin on 29 March, they are conscious that the crisis of public confidence in the EU is worse than ever. They talk constantly of getting "closer to the citizen", and of making Europe "relevant." But there is little reason to believe the IGC will win back support for integration. Rather, it is likely to confuse and alienate people further.
Only five years ago, John Major welcomed the results of the last IGC with a triumphant "game, set and match". No one would claim to regard the Maastricht treaty with that degree of satisfaction today. Horst Teltschik, who helped negotiate Maastricht as an adviser to Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, admits Europe's political leaders were wrong not to seek greater public support for the treaty at the time.
"We were too self-confident. We believed we had the support of the people," Mr Teltschik said. "It was a mistake. We should have explained what we were doing and why we were doing it more than we did. The goals were important and it was important to explain them."
Opinion polls only hint at the depth of disillusionment; there are many other indicators. There is a growing tendency to blame Brussels for economic ills and loss of cultural identity. The media in many member states run more and more anti-EU stories, both mythical and true, suggesting there is a public appetite for Euro-scepticism.
Ignorance about the way that Europe really works suggests there is apathy and confusion. Only 20 per cent of Europeans have heard of the forthcoming IGC on Europe, although it is billed as a historic watershed.
The British have always had their very British opinions on Europe. But for decades most continental citizens took the whole project for granted. Until the 1990s there was, as the pollsters' jargon describes it, a "permissive consensus" concerning Europe in most of the member states. The public accepted that integration, in general, was a good thing, and that it was being promoted to prevent war and produce economic benefits. People were largely content to leave the job of constructing Europe to the political elite without asking too many questions.
In the boom years of the late 1980s, general approval reached a peak. The prospect of the single market raised high hopes, while the dynamism of Jacques Delors, the former commission president, helped to promote an impression of progress. The collapse of the Soviet Union added to a sense of long-term security.
The downturn in support began in 1990 and 1991, before the signing of the Maastricht treaty, which subsequently became the scapegoat for the collapse in public confidence. Many in Brussels ascribe the new disillusionment to growing fear about the effects of the single market, and suspicion that hopes had been falsely raised about its benefits. When the Maastricht debate gathered pace in 1992, Europeans were already in a sceptical mood. Recession, and growing unemployment, made things worse.
This scepticism deepened when they started to contemplate the new reform programme. Maastricht, more than previous European reforms, raised questions about the principles of EU membership. The 1992 debate invited people to ask a fundamental question they may not have asked before: what is Europe for? The treaty failed to answer the question, serving only to confuse. As a blueprint for European union, Maastricht was alienating and impenetrable. It was rejected in a Danish referendum and was almost rejected by the French.
Since 1992 the indicators suggest no return of public confidence in "Europe". Talk of seeking a new "European identity" has only served to focus minds on the lack of any such thing. Furthermore, Europe's attempts at harmonisation are blamed for destroying the identities of nations and regions.
The advocates of EU integration argue they are attempting to lessen the effects of "globalisation". But ordinary people see the EU as an instrument of that process. "People once felt they were members of a nation state. Now they feel that less and less, but at the same time they don't feel like members of something called Europe," says Denis Macshane, a pro-European Labour MP.
After the Maastricht disappointment, it is not surprising that Europeans now recoil against the prospect of another round of abstruse debate over their future. This IGC could run on into the second half of 1997. "It is asking a lot of people to follow all of this. We are seen to be in a state of permanent revolution," said a senior official in the European Commission. "People are tired of it. They just don't want to know. They seem to be saying `just let us be left in peace'."
Setting their agenda for Turin, EU heads of government have shown they are aware of these concerns. More user-friendly concepts are being emphasised, such as greater "democracy" and "openness". Subsidiarity, the principle under which power ought to be exercised at supra-national level only where it is absolutely necessary, is once again being emphasised. And the European Commission, the unelected bureaucracy, seen as the real bogey in the public mind, is threatened with loss of status and power in the IGC. There are also growing signs that leaders are frantically looking for ways to buy public acceptance for the new IGC programme, with vague promises of policies for jobs and social protection, a greater role for national parliaments and greater attention to local sensitivities.
So far the public has had little reason to believe the views of the "citizens" will be taken into account, and the omens do not look good. One of the most marked findings of recent opinion polls was that seven out of 10 Europeans believed the next IGC ought to be put to a referendum in their country. Without a dramatic upswing in the public mood, the results of such referendums are unlikely to be positive.