Tories and Lib Dems in line for Europe link

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SENIOR officials in the two main centre-right groupings of the European Parliament have had discussions on linking up after the elections. Such a deal could mean that John Major's Conservatives and Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats, who will sit with these groups, are in a form of coalition at Strasbourg after the European elections in June.

The European People's Party, the Christian Democrat group with which the Conservatives have ties, and the Liberal Democrat and Reformist Groups, with which the Liberal Democrats are affiliated, could probably muster some 170 members after the elections, compared with about 210 for the Socialists. The fragmentation of the centre-right worries both groups, said a senior parliament source, and talks about a link have been held.

The deal being discussed would not involve a merger, but a less formal arrangement that would give both more clout when committee posts are handed out in the new parliament and help swing some votes on legislation. It could involve consultation and meetings between the two groups.

Officials admit that it might embarrass Mr Major and Mr Ashdown, but say that both groups have an interest in maximising their influence at a European level.

Relations are uneasy, and even an informal pact would anger many LDR members. Valery Giscard D'Estaing, ex-French President and a former leader of the LDR group, tried to achieve a merger in 1990 and 1991, but failed. He left to join the EPP. Some LDR officials still say the project is impossible because of the trouble it would stir.

The EPP will lose seats after the elections but will still be dominated by the Christian Democrats. The LDR group contains several Radical parties with a strong secular and anti-clerical tendency and they will not take easily to a link-up.

The fragmentation of the right has been partly caused by uncertainty about the group affiliations of the French centre-right. In theory they are fighting with a joint list, most of which are pledged to join the EPP. The exception is the Radical party, which has insisted on staying with the LDR. But the way the list was formed has angered both the neo-Gaullist RPR, some of whom may not join the EPP, and the more centrist Republicans, who may stay with the LDR.

Then there is the uncertainty over the Italian right. Either the LDR or the EPP may also be joined by some or all of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia. Both groups are adamant that they will have nothing to do with any Italian parties who have links with the extreme right.

The meaning of this alphabet soup of party conspiracy is principally that the parliament's right and centre-right is likely to find itself increasingly divided on national, religious, political and intra- party lines. The centre-right is also worried about the rise in support for anti-Maastricht parties, including the German and French far right, the Other Europe grouping in France and the Eurosceptic fractions of the Conservative party.

Leading article, page 17