Romano Prodi's central contention is that Europe at its millennium crossroads must choose the road to a "major moral revolution" if it is to make genuine progress beyond the single currency. This, he argues, can be properly accomplished only by consciously applying the doctrines of Christianity, in particular those of the Roman Catholic church.
Premier of Italy's 55th post-war government (May 1996-October 1998), founder of the new "Donkey" Party based on Christian democratic and socialist principles, and for 25 years professor of economics and industrial policy at the University of Bologna, Prodi was last month elected president of the European Commission until January 2005. His book may therefore be read as a guide to some of the reasoning and inspiration behind the transformations he plans for Europe during his term in office.
The completion of the European monetary union, the enlargement of the European Union and of Nato, and the universal establishment of the principles of freedom and democracy seem to herald a bright future, he grants. But growing fears about mass migration and demographic decline, doubts over maintaining the European welfare model intact and unacceptably high unemployment threaten a much darker one. Prodi observes that widespread individual alienation and the fear of diversity are, meanwhile, undermining both political and economic development, and ordinary people feel politics has lost touch with reality and somehow become impotent.
European politics must therefore urgently seek an innovative and efficient solution to the problems of the current European socio-economic model. This, Prodi maintains, would involve combining the tradition of solidarity of the welfare state with the capacity to compete in a globalised economy, in which limited state intervention would encourage private enterprise. A means must be found to tackle identity anxieties, which he sees as part of a common education policy, capable of "melting down in an unprecedented crucible" Latin, German, Anglo-Saxon and Slav cultures.
But new problems, he insists, demand new solutions, and the modern challenges that face Europe require a new, humanely sensitive breed of politicians, who are less obsessed with party pride, less tied to rigid ideologies rooted in the religious wars of the 20th century and more sincerely committed to the public interest. He holds that, with destructive secular-religious tensions now close to being resolved, a just society must build on the two co-essential and concomitant principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, since the Christian doctrine teaches that every person is a unique social being.
The French economist Jean Monnet, the French premier Robert Schuman, the West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the Italian premier Alcide De Gasperi, whom Prodi considers to have formed the embryo of a future United States of Europe, provide further inspiration for Prodi's plans. In advocating free trade as the instrument to overcoming economic nationalism,he says, they bequeathed a moral heritage since lost, which can be regained through Christianity.
In a key chapter titled "A soul for Europe", Prodi harnesses considerable Vatican backing for his objective of "building a great European soul", by which he means forging a collective moral conscience along Roman Catholic lines. Italian support for EU enlargement from the present 15 states to a target of 30 had the blessing of Pope John Paul II in Gniezno, Poland, two years ago. Then, the pope invited Europeans to collaborate resolutely and constructively to strengthen peace, urging: "May they not leave any nation,not even the weakest, outside the group they are building."
Prodi also cites the pope on unacceptably high European unemployment (now about 10 per cent in most EU states and above 12 per cent in Italy): "Man is, as a person, dependent on work." It follows, says Prodi, that man achieves his human dignity through work, without which he loses his essential identity. He applauds the pope for having obliged all Christian churches in Europe to reflect on the relation between the spirit of Europe and that of Christianity, a reflection that Prodi traces back to Pope Paul VI, who had stressed "the harmony between a great political design and the general principles of man and society". Europe is thus inconceivable without its Christian roots, because Christianity has left upon it an indelible impression.
Countering the plausible conclusion that the Roman Catholic church has new designs on Europe - one reinforced by the pope's recent proclamation of three special European patron saints - Prodi explains that what is taking place is simply a Christian reawakening.
Begging forgiveness on behalf of Italy and the rest of Europe for the Holocaust, and condemning all forms of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, Prodi calls for stiff sanctions against member states found guilty of discrimination.
He concludes with an essential manifesto for a "Europe of the spirit", which he presents in the words of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini two years ago in Strasbourg, calling for the respect of basic values: the dignity of the human being; the central role of the family; the importance of education and freedom of thought and speech; the legal protection of individuals and groups; the collaboration of all for the common good; work as a personal and social good; and the authority of the state subjected to the law of reason and limited by basic rights.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the appeal would have been better directed to Rome. Italy, with the Vatican at its heart as the self-professed sole custodian of morality and truth, has long been the negation of these values, each of which, in reality, is matched by its antithesis: one of the world's highest abortion rate and lowest birth rate; a clan mentality based on the logic of favours; an education system built on servility and patronage that scorns merit and disregards the spirit of truth as ingenuous; the total lack of any independent moral and social conscience; a legal system that is the slowest in Europe and has more than 200,000 laws to be got round by the those who can afford to; gross overconcern with material possession resulting in egoism, envy and greed; the highest unemployment rate in the EU; and the conspicuous absence of the state, especially in the Mafia-dominated south.
Nor is it clear why the same moral salvation that Italy is seeking for itself in Europe should be on its way to Europe from Italy by the good graces of Mr Prodi, the pope and Cardinal Martini.
That Prodi remains oblivious to these and other contradictions and objections - notably, his conflation of Christianity and morality, his uncritical acceptance that genuine freedom and democracy have been established in Europe, his apparent insensitivity to cultural differences and his view that the European Commission should continue to be made up mainly of politicians despite its essentially executive role - may be partly explained by the impression of a man inebriated with a sense of Christian mission, intoxicated by the prospects of power and infatuated with the idea of Europe. Poor credibility is aggravated by the fact that this crusader is facing yet another criminal investigation in Italy.
Whether or not Prodi's heady road to a moral palingenesis for Europe proves practicable remains to be seen. On the evidence of his book, it would certainly appear to be paved with good intentions.
Domenico Pacitti teaches English language at the University of Pisa, Italy.
Un'idea dell'Europa [An Idea of Europe]
Author - Romano Prodi
ISBN - 88 15 07103 2
Publisher - Il Mulino, Bologna
Price - £5.00, €8.00
Pages - 147