By origin the European Union is a deeply Catholic institution. Its six-member precursor took in the main Catholic powers of Western Europe, apart from Fascist Spain; even part-Protestant Germany was led in by that devout Roman Catholic Rhinelander, Konrad Adenauer. The Union's close historical avatar, the Holy Roman Empire, aspired to an imperium that, if not wholly Roman, remained as firmly of this world as papal power itself. In the 19th century, ultramontane Germans feted Pius IX's declaration of pontifical infallibility as a riposte to Bismarck's failed Kulturkampf against the Catholic Centre Party. Even 'subsidiarity' – the EU norm whereby decisions supposedly devolve to local level – has a strong lineage in Vatican social doctrine, latterly parroted by popes such as John Paul II, but with roots in Aquinas. Much of that doctrine owed less to fondness for families and civil society than hostility to European sovereigns as adversaries of the pontifical superstate. In this light, the caesaropapist Henrician reformation emerges as the original Brexit.

After the Second World War, pan-European dreams got a big fillip from French Catholicism. The school of Uriage, set up under Vichy in 1940 at the Château Bayard, 450 metres up in Rhône-Alpes, aimed to inculcate in France's new administrative cadres the values and virtues of medieval Christendom. Uriage, a would-be third way between the twin 'barbarisms' of atheistic Soviet communism and 'Anglo-Saxon' (in this case, mainly American) protestant capitalism, called its students moines-chevaliers or 'knight-monks'. Anti-liberal, anti-democratic and above all reactionary, the school's ethos aimed to blend the chivalric blazon and monkish habit with the scout's woggle (a touchstone being its attitude to women: as Jean-Jacques Chevallier, a law teacher at Uriage, put it, 'what she’ – i.e. women in general – ‘wants of a man, first of all, is to be a man … she harbours contempt for the womanish man' etc.). Several alumni would go on to the Ecole nationale d’administration after the war.

An Uriage founder, François Perroux, figures in the incipient European project as a prophet of monetary union. He was a close friend of Robert Schuman, whose name still adorns the glazed Vale of Hinnom that is the EU complex in Brussels. Schuman was a chaste, über-Catholic technocrat. For Perroux, fiat money, sovereign states' ability to create liquidity, was at the root of bad governance: the remedy lay in curbing this profligacy by creating a European central bank with sole discretion over issuance. Such a body would administer a European single currency. It was foreseen that locking productive economies into currency union would preclude the homoeostatic adjustment conferred, in classical theory, by floating exchange rates; hence a central agency – in effect, a European government – would be needed to direct inward investment to underperforming regions such as those of southern Europe. François Mitterrand agreed as much in discussion with another practising Catholic, Jacques Delors, who came to power in France and then the European Union via anti-Marxist syndicalism. A Eurozone would unleash large capital flows from debtor to creditor nations, as southern members' debt was financed by economic powerhouses like Germany.

It was not so much that currency union failed because there was no political union: it was engineered to fail, in order that there be political union. That bet has failed, and with it the French postwar fantasy of checking German hegemony via a European superstate (de Gaulle once said that if Europe was a coach, Germany was the horse and France the driver). A famous Figaro front page in 1992 after the Maastricht Treaty promised that currency union would effect the Versailles Treaty (granting reparations to France from Germany after the First World War) by other means; it's proven to be less like Versailles than like the Maginot Line.

Such as it is, the Union's flirtation with neoliberalism is recent-vintage software grafted onto a corporatist operating system. The stalling of the TTIP talks is indicative, as is last week's ruling by the EU Competition Commissioner that Apple remit $14.5 billion in unpaid taxes to Ireland – countermanding the Republic's own soft-pedalling on big business. The overriding of national sovereignty by corporate central authority could hardly be plainer. When Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt signed the Franco-German European Stability Mechanism – forerunner of the euro – in 1978, they marked the occasion by a pilgrimage to Aix-la-Chapelle (or Aachen), the seat of the first Holy Roman Emperor. At the press conference, Giscard mused: ‘Perhaps the spirit of Charlemagne brooded over us.’