Major battles anti-Europe tide: Prime Minister's attempt to end talk of leaving EU is hampered by fears over party unity

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CASTING himself as a 'Euro-realist', John Major attempted yesterday to call a halt to the growing view among Conservative MPs that the Government should contemplate taking Britain out of the European Union.

Douglas Hurd underlined the concern in the Tory hierarchy about the new mood of EU rejection in the party. The Foreign Secretary told Tory supporters in the West Country that anyone seeking to reverse the 1972 referendum vote to take Britain into the European Community was 'out of touch with reality'.

Mr Major, whose leadership could face a fresh crisis after the polls on 9 June, carefully avoided alienating the party's new EU- doubters, who claim they are in the majority and on whose support his future may depend.

At the end of a week of speculation about the Conservatives' direction on Europe, the Prime Minister said Europe was important to Britain's national economic interests and its international security. 'I am not going to get into the 'Euro-sceptic' or 'Euro-enthusiast' argument. I am a Euro-realist. I think that is the position of most people in this country,' he said.

'That doesn't mean we have to accept everything that comes out of Brussels bureaucracy. It doesn't mean we always have to agree with our partners,' he added.

The issue has been brought to a head by senior colleagues, including some Cabinet ministers, who are urging Mr Major to recover from the party's expected poor showing in the European elections by firmly committing his leadership to the idea of a two- or three- speed Europe in the planning for the 1996 inter-governmental summit.

Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, warned that the speculation about a British withdrawal from the EU was 'undermining the Prime Minister and our candidates'.

However, the Euro-sceptics believe the Tory European manifesto, now being redrafted, will be more in tune with their views. Mr Major's brand of 'Euro-realism' also appeared to chime with an anti-federalist mood in Europe. A new alliance of anti-federalist powers, which the Government hopes could halt the moves towards the 'ever closer union' of Maastricht, is emerging from the volatile political situation in Europe.

Britain expects the incoming Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi to reverse his country's unabashedly federalist pro-European policy, in place since the early 1950s.

The new Italian foreign minister is expected to be Professor Antonio Martino, the only Italian founding member of the staunchly Euro- sceptic and Thatcherite Bruges group. As a result a sharp U-turn in Italian policy on Europe is on the cards and Professor Martino's pronouncements are being closely monitored for any change in the political wind.

At the same time the ruling Gaulist coalition partner in France is questioning the centralising vision of Europe and lending a sympathetic ear to the British government's reluctance to be drawn into a European superstate.

The three parties, Forza Italia, the Gaullists and the Conservatives, each with access to the levers of power, have a vision of Europe that is radically different from that of Jacques Delors, Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, who now dominate the political scene. Even in Germany there is growing disquiet at the financial burden of closer European union and the loss of national sovereignty that could follow the 1996 conference on the EU's future.

Unlike some on the far right in Britain, the anti-federalist forces in Europe do not want to destroy the EU, but they are determined to halt the slide into Euro-federalism by playing up nationalist themes.

The determination of the Prime Minister to snuff out the prospect of Britain leaving the EU, which has been catching hold in the party at Westminster, was matched by an anxiety to maintain unity. Mr Major was more circumspect than Mr Hurd and his 'Euro-realist' label was one that was shared by Bill Cash, a leading Tory Euro-sceptic.

Campaigning in the West Country, where the Liberal Democrats are the main threat, the Foreign Secretary said he wanted to spell out 'some home truths' which were 'difficult to focus in the hot- house atmosphere of gossip and rumour at Westminster'.

The Conservatives would campaign on a positive message that there was no alternative to Europe, he said. Those seeking to take Britain out were out of touch with geographical reality, with commercial reality and with security.

Confronting the 'Euro-sceptics' in the party, Mr Hurd dismissed 'mushy-headed idealists driven by theory or ideology'.

Party leaders also damped down speculation that Mr Major had ordered the European election manifesto to be rewritten because he wanted it to be more Euro-sceptic in tone. Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, called the suggestion barmy.

Ceasefire over Europe, page 2

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