Hardly for the first time, a Tory leader is having trouble with Europe. On this occasion, it involves David Cameron's members of the European Parliament (MEPs). During his leadership campaign, Mr Cameron declared that he would take them out of the European People's Party, the pan-European centre-right federalist grouping.
In some quarters, this was interpreted as an opportunistic attempt to recruit Eurosceptic Tory MPs to the Cameron camp. That was not the case. By the time Mr Cameron made his pledge, he was certain to win, and on the EPP question, he had form. He had never believed that the British Conservative Party should be affiliated with federalists, a view which was confirmed when the EPP decided to campaign for the European constitution.
Mr Cameron thought that where there were areas of agreement with the EPP, it would be easier to work together as separate parties rather than as reluctant partners. There was a phrase which he would repeat: "Better to be good neighbours than unhappy tenants.''
Mr Cameron would have made his position clear at the outset of his leadership bid, but for one factor. Early last summer, Michael Howard, the then leader, was involved in talks with the EPP. Although this was merely another profitless attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, it would have been awkward for Mr Howard if his preferred successor had come out in favour of breaking with the EPP.
Mr Cameron was not only influenced by negative considerations. He was appealing to the recently liberated Europeans of the east and centre. In most of the former Comecon countries, there were free-marketers who had no desire to swap Moscow for Brussels. Mr Cameron thought that he should be able to find support for a new anti-federalist, free trade party committed to reforming the EU's institutions and to a transatlantic partnership.
It was a laudable ambition. Then the problems began. They started with the French and Germans, who were horrified at the idea of a new anti-federalist political force looking towards London for leadership. That would have been a mortal threat to their political monopoly. The French have still not given up hope of running Europe as a French jockey on a German horse. Some Germans believe that they can use Europe to boss other nations around without running the risk of another lost war. So both Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel were angry with Mr Cameron.
Nor has it been as easy as might have been assumed to find reliable allies in eastern Europe. The eastern Europeans took up democracy with enthusiasm. But some of them could not grasp the difference between one-man-one-vote - a good idea - and one-man-one-party: less good. Often, the new political parties split at the least provocation. Sometimes, they did not only quarrel with other parties in their own country. Mr Cameron thought that he had found a reliable ally in the Czech Republic and another one in Poland. There is only one difficulty. Those two parties are currently on non-speaks.
The European Parliament has also acted as a malign influence. It has a dubious democratic mandate. In British Euro-elections, the turnout virtually loses its deposit, and even on the Continent the voters are uninspired. But the Parliament compensates for its lack of legitimacy with perquisites and bribery. According to its federalising rules, European political parties can only achieve full recognition if they have MEPs from at least five countries. If the British Tories were to withdraw from the EPP and sat on their own, they would lose around half a million euros a year.
So David Cameron and his shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, have spent the past few months looking for support. They have strict criteria. They would not sit with M. Le Pen, or with Ms Mussolini. They did not want allies who evoked bared wire. They also wanted more than five parties in the grouping, so that it could not be vulnerable to pressure from its smallest members, who might be bribed to defect.
Not only do the European Parliament's rules encourage parties to remain in large blocs; there are similar inducements for individual MEPs. The big parties can allocate committee chairmanships, vice-presidencies et al, which come with larger offices, even more generous allowances and inflated self-importance. Given the frailty of human nature, these seductive techniques have proved effective, and might work in eastern Europe.
It is not always easy for members of local, badly paid political elites to resist the inducements of Brussels, especially when they are reinforced by the bullying of Berlin. Angela Merkel has condemned the Poles and Czechs who have expressed interest in Mr Cameron's proposed new party. Though she may be a new political figure, she has reverted to an earlier tradition among German chancellors: one which found it intolerable that Poles and Czechs should aspire to self-determination. Far too many Germans have still not understood the consequences of their own recent history. When their political leaders behave like Ms Merkel, they wonder why no one shows any sympathy for the plight of the Sudeten Germans.
Mrs Merkel was brought up in the east, where cultural de-Nazification was much less thorough than in the west. She has been threatening David Cameron that if he carried out his intentions, she would break off relations with the British Conservative Party. If she understood anything about Mr Cameron or his country, she ought to have known that this was the last way to persuade him. But as became clear during her election campaign, Angela Merkel is a politician of limited ability who is likely to be of transient importance.
If anything, Mr Cameron is even more determined to leave the EPP than he was last December. He is not in a hurry. He does not want a patched rival group which quickly disintegrates, to universal Europhile mirth. But he does believe that it would be wrong to remain in alliance with federalists. He also believes that the European debate could do with more honesty, both in Britain and on the Continent.
That is what appals the British Europhiles. Some - including a handful of Tories - refuse to renounce the illusion that they can somehow lull the British people towards federalism. As long as the Tory party is signed up to the EPP, that fantasy could appear to have a basis in reality. When Mr Cameron carries out his intention, they will protest loudly, insisting that they stand for a significant proportion of the electorate. They have supporters; perhaps as many as a hundred in the Greater London area alone.
Mr Cameron is acting out of principle, not out of political advantage. But the two will converge.Reuse content