European Union Summit: Lib Dems contemplate wilderness

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THE Liberal Democrats are facing their first crisis in the European Parliament because the political group to which they belong wants the French Gaullists to become members as well.

The Lib-Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, has made it clear to associates that the party will pull out of the Liberal and Democratic Reformists (LDR) group, of which it is a founder member, if the Gaullists are allowed to join. This is now an increasingly likely prospect, say liberal sources, and would mark a move to the centre for Edouard Balladur's ruling RPR- UDF coalition if it occurs.

'Paddy Ashdown's view is that it is impossible to contemplate an alliance with the Gaullists and it would be better to leave the group altogether,' a senior party source said yesterday. The Lib Dems, who made their breakthrough in the elections by getting two Euro-deputies elected, face the daunting prospect of looking for a new political alliance in Europe if the Gaullists are admitted.

Despite being one of the most pro-European integration parties around, they risk shutting themselves out of the third most powerful political group in the parliament. To form an alternative group more to their liking they would need a total of 26 MEPs. Failing that, the two Lib Dem MEPs are in danger of being unattached (like some Communists and independent candidates) and therefore politically impotent at a time when the parliament is taking on important new powers and responsibilities.

One of the parliament's first tasks will be to approve or reject the person chosen to be president of the Commission by the heads of state meeting in Corfu today.

The French Prime Minister wants the RPR party to which he belongs, together with the UDF side of the coalition, to form a single political bloc in the European parliament. The Christian Democratic European People's Party - which with its 140 members is the main opposition to the 200-strong socialist bloc in parliament - has also put out feelers to the Gaullists; at the same time it has invited Britain's Conservatives finally to become fully fledged members of the group.

The Gaullists and Ireland's Fianna Fail are believed to be more interested in joining the Liberals which they would then dominate, while bringing its numbers up from 45 to 70, thereby making it a powerful force in parliament. Gaullist membership would also leave the door open for Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia to sign up in the autumn, a party the Lib Dems are even more emphatic about having nothing to do with.

The Liberal group's expansion plans are expected to dominate a meeting in Rome next week: Britain's Lib Dem representatives, as well as the progressive Dutch liberal party known as D-66, are expected to express their 'vehement opposition' to bringing the Gaullists on board.