The political alliance that dominates Europe took shape on a cold March night in 1998, over dinner in a bungalow in western Germany.

Around Helmut Kohl's table were a gaggle of premiers and backroom fixers, the German chancellor's trusted circle on European affairs. It was to be a fateful night for EU politics, whose heavy hangover Europe's centre-right is wrestling with before next week's elections.

They gathered at the Kanzlerbungalow in Bonn because Kohl's continent-spanning ambitions for the European People's party were floundering. Europe's centre-right was in the throes of an identity crisis.

Through years of personal effort, Kohl had