Tories embarrassed by their new friends from the East

Hague defends link-up with Eurosceptic groups holding 'out-of-date' views
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Indy Politics

The Conservative Party distanced itself yesterday from the hardline views of its new partners in the European Parliament, some of whom oppose women's and gay rights.

The 25 Tory MEPs have linked up with a collection of 30 Eurosceptic members from seven other countries to form the European Conservatives and Reformists after breaking away from the mainstream centre right EPP group, the largest in the European Parliament. David Cameron's decision has dismayed the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose parties are members of the EPP.

William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, admitted that some of the Tories' new bedfellows had "different social attitudes" but insisted that the new parliamentary group would not subscribe to them. He said some of the views attributed to the Conservatives' new partners were "out of date" and that they were mainstream, not marginal, parties.

The two main allies are the Polish Law and Justice Party, which has banned gay rights' marches, and the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS), the party of the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who has described climate change as a "myth" and the former prime minister Mirek Topolanek, who was photographed naked at a party hosted by the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Another member is a Dutch ultra-religious party, the Christian Union, which opposes abortion. But the Tories are not linking up – for now, at least – with the SPG section of the Christian Union, which opposes women standing as election candidates and taking senior positions.

Mr Hague insisted that the ODS was the "leading party of the Czech Republic". Law and Justice was "the party of the president of Poland", he said. Other allies in Finland, the Netherlands and Latvia were part of ruling coalitions, he added.

"We don't believe in the so-called federal Europe and it has got to be good for European democracy and diversity to have a grouping in the European Parliament with which we agree and can put an alternative point of view," said Mr Hague.

Timothy Kirkhope, leader of the Tory MEPs, said the party had not associated itself with parties from the far-right and extremists. "Our basic criteria for joining was that members would be willing to accept our overall position on Europe, which is a Europe that is non-federal and based on values shared by citizens rather than values shared by the eurocrats," he said.

Although the group's policy statement describes family values as the "bedrock of society", Mr Kirkhope said: "That does not mean that we don't accept other people's social rights."

The new group is likely to be the fourth largest in the Parliament following this month's Euro elections. The breakaway delighted Tory Eurosceptics and fulfils a pledge by Mr Cameron in his Tory leadership campaign four years ago. Tory Europhiles, whose figurehead is the shadow Business Secretary Kenneth Clarke, were hoping the party would not find the necessary six allies.

Former Tory MEPs condemned the move. Caroline Jackson called it "stupid" and said it would create "bad blood" with the party's centre-right allies, while Christopher Beazley said Mr Cameron would "rip up 30 years of work by Tory pro-Europeans".

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said the Tories had dragged themselves "from Euroscepticism to Euro extremism".