Hague and his MEPs set to clash

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WILLIAM HAGUE is heading for a major showdown with his own newly elected MEPs by trying to force them to leave the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament.

The Tory leader is determined to end the Conservatives' associate membership of the European People's Party - attacked by Eurosceptics as too federalist - and to forge a new centre-right alliance in Brussels instead.

He told the Shadow Cabinet last week that he wanted to "recast" the right- wing parties in the European Parliament to ensure that the Tories were not linked to a grouping which supports the single currency and greater integration.

The decision will put Mr Hague on a collision course with his MEPs, who decided on Friday, by 25 to 9 in favour, to maintain the current status of associate membership of the EPP.

It will also lead the Tory leader into controversial territory, as several of the parties in the European Parliament have neo-fascist links. Although Mr Hague has already ruled out working with the Italian far-right group, Alleanza Nazionale, he has authorised discussions with Charles Pasqua, the French right-winger whose party has been criticised by the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.

Edward Macmillan-Scott, the leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, would be in an awkward position if the Tories left, as he is also vice-chairman of the EPP. According to senior pro-European Tory sources, at least a dozen of the MEPs would seriously consider ignoring Mr Hague's instructions and maintain their association with the EPP. "If they go ahead with this, there will be massive showdowns," one insider said. "You're talking about leaving the party out in the cold in European politics."

However, according to senior Conservatives, Mr Hague is adamant that the existing relationship with the EPP cannot continue. During the campaign for the elections on 10 June, Labour used pro-European statements from the EPP to try to undermine the Tory leader's more sceptical position.