The trouble with Europe is that you have to swallow it whole

MEET TABLOID Tony, scourge of "lunatics and headbangers". Tone can be found down at the Dog and Duck on a Friday night musing: "He's maaad, that William Hague. Looney tunes. Barmy army. And another thing - those Tories. They're maaad as well. One short of a six pack."

When Mr Blair adopts undiluted the demotic vocabulary of his spokesman Alastair Campbell, something is not quite right. It is a sign that the Prime Minister's usual poise and confidence has deserted him; a flight into the deceptive certainties of belligerence. Prime Ministers only pay this much attention to the Leader of the Opposition when they are stuck for anything more substantial to say about their own predicament.

Previously, the Government barely needed to acknowledge the existence of the party opposite. When I watch the rather sad little gaggle clustered around Mr Hague at Prime Minister's Questions, ghostly figures of yesteryear who would so palpably like to be somewhere else - indeed be someone, anyone else rather a Tory front-bencher at the end of the 20th century - I am not struck by the sheer force of their destructive frenzy. Michael Portillo, chief headbanger in absentia, orbits in political outer space; Peter Lilley mutters shyly about the folly of it all; and Michael Howard - well, where is Mr Howard now you come to mention him?

But Mr Hague at least has the policy he wants and on which he is happy to fight the next election. Opposing the single currency is a cause around which to unite his fractious and shaken troops. But in the wake of the Cranborne debacle, he is in danger of repeating Old Labour's mistake and addressing himself purely to the Conservative Party, which knows its mind on Europe, rather than to the public, which is still undecided.

His insistence that Mr Blair is sacrificing British "independence" to the European monolith made the heart sink a bit. Independence from what? No island is an island. We are not independent from Europe: we are part of it. The question is on what terms, with what goals and how we should respond when we believe that the Continent's institutions have taken a wrong turn. A decision not to enter EMU does not surgically remove Britain from Europe. It simply changes the nature of our relations with those in the euro zone. Mr Hague needs to start making a more positive argument about Britain's future outside the single currency.

But Mr Blair has the more pressing Euro problem. He has been forced into a far hastier advance on integration than he would have naturally pursued and is palpably unhappy with the altered state in which his policy finds itself. Until the autumn, Britain was being eased gently into EMU. In the television ads that awful man was striding around his office barking at the staff to "get ready for the euro". The start-up of EMU on 1 January would accustom Britain to the idea of the single currency and could be marketed by such silver-tongued salesmen as Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson as "inevitable". We would be halfway into the euro before the small matter of a referendum was even raised.

Then along came Oskar Lafontaine, as German Finance Minister. Unlike Gerhard Schroder or Tony Blair, who have succeeded in politics because they mastered the art of not committing themselves, Herr Lafontaine believes that politics should be the clash of great armies, and that if he believes in an integrated European state, he should say so and tell us why. This frankness is the last thing the British government expected.

It opens up too many awkward questions about economic management, taxation and opt-outs and how much diversity the New Europe will tolerate. The SPD's own think-tank, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, has cold feet over Herr Lafontaine's costly plans to reduce German unemployment. He is the kind of high-spending Old Labourite Mr Blair usually crosses the road to avoid. He also happens to hold one of the most influential economic posts within the EU.

The next untenable proposition is that Britain can lead in Europe. It cannot. You cannot lead as the third player, behind a powerful Franco- German alliance, around whose requirements the EU was constructed and who can always tip the balance against Britain. The attempt to sell integration to the British on the grounds that we will have a significant amount of control over what happens next stretches credibility. If Britain is not a strong enough voice to save the duty-free concession on a bottle of gin at Heathrow, then it is unlikely to change the philosophy of the new corporatism, nor influence the direction of policy other than in the direction that Bonn and Paris have decided that it should go.

Yet if Britain cannot enjoy the fruits of leadership, the public will rightly ask what the benefits of following are. This turns the beam of attention to the financial terms of Britain's relations with the EU. The pounds 2bn budget rebate is not assured. The EU giveth and the EU taketh away. The rebate was a temporary trade-off achieved by Margaret Thatcher to make her government feel better about about deepening integration, which she aided by being a signatory to the Single European Act.

As one of the main supporters of EU enlargement to the east, Britain can justifiably be asked to cough up to support this development. The only way to sell this to a public which has well-developed doubts about the uses to which the EU puts the funds of its contributors is to call for closer involvement in EU management, which means open acceptance of its widening political dimension.

This means tearing up the notion, reiterated hereto by Mr Blair, that EMU is a purely economic project and that we can judge whether it is in our interest on purely balance-sheet terms. Now he has called on his Cabinet to promote stronger pro-European ties and not simply coast along as idle well-wishers.

If the Prime Minister is serious about this new line, supporters of the EMU will have to defend the whole romantic concept of politically unified Europe and argue that the benefits of this dream outweigh the advantages of electoral control and the kind of democratic legitimacy currently enjoyed by Britain. Some believe this to be worth the candle and are happy to put the case. Many more are unconvinced and were far happier with the more cautious model of limited enthusiasm. They will find themselves called on to support a growing number of measures and ideas about which they have the gravest doubts themselves. That is harder to sustain than one might think.

Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who replied to my request for a source of the poem I mentioned while discussing animal rights last week. In case anyone is still rummaging, it is Ralph Hodgson's `The Bells of Heaven'

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