It speaks volumes for the fearfulness and fragility of the European dream that there is such a heartfelt sigh of relief from the great and the good of the EU, from Narvik in the far North to Naples in the far South, over the news that Austria has just rejected the most right-wing politician to have emerged in that country since that funny-looking chap with a toothbrush moustache.

Yes, the failure of the neo-fascist Norbert Hofer to win the Austrian presidency is indeed an unexpected let-off for a European autocracy so arrogant, so out of touch, so contemptuous of public opinion that a despairing electorate is increasingly driven to desperate measures. Did European voters ever really want to give power to a scary extremist such as Hofer? Probably not. But after the example of the Brexit vote and the earthquake of Donald Trump's victory in America, more and more of them are now prepared to show how seriously fed up they are.

And that brings us to a far more significant election result at the weekend, one that has plunged the EU into yet another crisis and may even reduce the political architecture of Europe to ruins: the defeat of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Italy's constitutional referendum.

On the face of it, the question had nothing whatsoever to do with the EU. It was essentially an attempt to bring a degree of order to Italy's shambolic constitutional arrangements, which have produced no fewer than 63 coalition governments (almost all of them useless) since 1945.

Moreover, the words on the ballot-paper couldn't have been more tedious: Do you approve the text of the Constitutional Law concerning provisions for overcoming equal bicameralism ... blah, blah and so on, and so forth until some voters may well have lost the will to live. If you truly want to read the rest of this turgid bureaucratese — more than 60 words of it — you can always resort to Google, though I really wouldn't recommend it.

But of course this referendum was never really about constitutional reform. It simply became another catalyst for the public's frustration with the dysfunctional power structures that govern their lives. From the moment Mr Renzi announced that he would resign if he lost, this vote became the opportunity for disillusioned voters to rebel against the system — especially against the bureaucracy of Brussels.

And who can blame them? Millions remember a golden age when Italy was one of the powerhouses of Europe, when Italian style and Italian energy inspired such success that for a few heady years it seemed as though their country's economy was putting Britain in the shade. They called the achievement 'il sorpasso' and it was a source of real national pride.

But that was before the reckless introduction of the euro in 1999, a development that was supposed to lead to a surge of prosperity across the continent and usher in a new golden age.

Remember when Britain was being urged to join in this grand venture? We were told we'd be left behind if we didn't sign up. The usual crew of eurotoadies warned that unless we adopted the new currency we'd end up as the EU's poor neighbours, reduced to brown ale and pork pies while the rest of Europe feasted on Dom Perignon, truffles and caviar. It was one of the many manifestations of Project Fear.

Pro-Leave supporters argue with Pro-Remain supporters dressed as judges in front of the Supreme Court ahead of the first day of a hearing into whether Parliament's consent is required before the Brexit process can begin in London Leon Neal/ Getty Images

Well, we were wise enough to resist such scaremongering rubbish. But the unfortunate Italians? Their leaders fell for it hook, line and sinker. And just look at what has happened under the euro. Germany has grown by 25%. France isn't far behind. Meanwhile non-euro Britain has easily outperformed them all, with growth of 40%.

But Italy? Since adopting the common currency, total growth of that unfortunate country is less that six percent. The economy is flatlining. Unemployment is tragically high — almost 40% among young people. To make matters even worse, the nation is awash in debt. The banking system is dangerously weak, with some institutions teetering on the brink of collapse. The possibility of a full-blown financial crisis, spilling across the entire eurozone is very real.

So will the EU be brought to its knees? Probably not. Or not yet, anyway. Nobody should underestimate the determination of Brussels to keep the show on the road, whatever the cost. Somehow, Italy and Europe are likely to muddle through. But for how long?

Italy will almost certainly be forced into an early election next year, when the right-wing Northern League and Beppe Grillo's Five Star movement – both visceral enemies of the EU – are likely to win enough support to form a government. Elections in Germany and Holland will also reflect a surge in anti-European opinion. And in France, it is more than possible that the formidable right-winger Marine Le Pen will seize the Presidency.

Of course the European establishment and its cheerleaders will do everything they possibly can to frustrate the democratically expressed will of the voters. It was always thus. Remember how Brussels succeeded in reversing the results of referendums in Denmark, Holland, Ireland and France? We're seeing the same pattern in Britain this week, when the Eurozealots are up before the Supreme Court, claiming that the government has no power to start negotiations on pulling out of the EU without first seeking parliamentary approval.

The pity is that the judges ever agreed to hear such a transparently hypocritical submission. How dare these Remoaners claim they're defending Parliamentary sovereignty when for the past 40 years they've uttered not a peep of protest as Westminster steadily ceded power to Brussels?

But whatever the Supreme Court decides may in the end be irrelevant. The result from Italy this weekend surely reflects the reality of what is happening in the wider Europe.

If this is not quite the end of the EU in its present form, it could well turn out to be the beginning of the end. Everywhere, the tide of public resentment is rising. The cracks in the dam are widening. Pressure is growing. What else should we expect, in a Europe incapable of listening and incabable of reform, but a raging torrent that will sweep away everything in its path?

Michael Toner is a former Fleet Street political editor and co-author of a series of Bluffers' Guides on Europe.