New anti-federalists in European pact

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The Independent Online
THE European elections could see the emergence of a new alliance of the ruling parties from Britain, France and Italy, all keen to head off moves towards a stronger European Union at the expense of the nation state.

The outcome of the elections should focus even more attention on the divide between those who want a federalist Europe and parties such as the British Conservatives, who are keen to put as many obstacles as possible in the way of the Maastricht process.

Britain and the government of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy are already planning to work closely together because of their common free-market approach and Italy's desire to have a higher profile in EU politics. Both governments proclaim a common interest in promoting the single European market and much is being made of the Thatcherite credentials of Antonio Martino, Italy's new foreign minister, who met the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, in Brussels on Monday. How solid the Rome-London axis will prove to be, given Mr Berlusconi's ultra- right coalition partners, remains to be seen.

One manifestation of these shifting alliances could be changes in the membership of the big political groups in the European Parliament. Britain's Conservatives are members of the 162-strong European People's Party (EPP), which is predominantly Christian Democratic and avowedly federalist. The Tories are expected to lose many of their 32 seats, and the EPP itself is set to undergo a big shake-up in the elections. Christian Democratic parties from the most federalist countries, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, are expected to lose seats.

But the French Gaullists, at present in a smaller group, will join the EPP after the election and they may be accompanied by Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. This would radically alter the complexion of the group, significantly watering down its federalist tendencies, to the relief of many British Conservatives.

British Conservatives, who have had an uneasy relationship with the EPP, are working behind the scenes to ensure that the National Alliance is at least closely associated with the EPP. If the Gaullists, Forza Italia and the Conservatives can join forces in the shortly-to-be 567- strong parliament, the federalist question will be the source of sharp debate. In the new parliament the Spanish Popular Party, the Gaullist RPR, the Conservatives and Forza Italia would be a more powerful force than the traditional Christian Democrats, causing tremendous difficulties within the EPP.

How effective the axis is going to be in slowing down the federalist agenda remains to be seen. But given the realities of coalition politics in Italy, with Mr Berlusconi dependent on the support of the regionalist Northern League and the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance (AN) his room for manoeuvre will be restricted. Both the Northern League and AN have an interest getting as much money for their powerbase regions as possible from Brussels.

Britain and Italy are already promoting an initiative to give eastern European countries an institutional say in policing, justice and even the formation of a common foreign and security policy. In his meeting with Douglas Hurd, Mr Martino confirmed that Italy would carry on the policy of opening the EU towards eastern Europe.