Tories face isolation in European Parliament: The Conservatives and their European allies are heading towards a divorce,

THE isolation of the Conservatives in Europe, and their internal divisions, are increasingly evident in the European Parliament. As the party conference opens, Euro- Tories face more difficult relations with the political group they sit with in Strasbourg as well as a growing internal rift.

The Conservatives are associated members of the European People's Party, the centre-right group dominated by the German Christian Democrats. They have never had much in common, but the differences came out into the open last week, as Wilfried Martens, the EPP chairman, mounted an outspoken attack on John Major's vision of the European Union in a speech.

'What room for manoeuvre is there for Major's government . . . when its current majority in the Commons is only 17 and it has more than 30 hardline anti-Europeans in its own ranks who will make the government's survival dependent on its policy in Europe?,' Mr Martens said in his speech. 'There is a very real danger that we shall not push ahead with the reforms that are urgently needed, preferring instead to allow the slowest to set the pace.'

Mr Martens added: 'It is time for the advocates of a federal Europe to speak out and go on the offensive again,' a message that was unlikely to set heads nodding even among Tory MEPs. There is now a solid block of Euro-sceptics among the Conservatives in the European Parliament, at least one of whom did not initially favour links with the EPP. There is talk of secession among the Tories.

Mr Martens and the EPP warmly endorse the plan for a hard-core Europe, laid out in a German Christian Democrat plan earlier this month, describing it as 'of the utmost political importance for the future of Europe'. John Major, in his speech in Leiden, in the Netherlands, rejected the German plan.

Tom Spencer, chairman of the Euro-Tories, wrote to Mr Major, complaining; others praised the speech. When the European Parliament voted on the German ideas two weeks ago, the EPP backed it wholeheartedly. The Conservatives, reduced to a rump at June's European elections, were split three ways.

Among the 18 Euro-Tories there is a group of about six which is fighting against the pro-federalist line. It includes MEPs such as Edward McMillan-Scott and Bryan Cassidy, as well as Graham Mather, a former director of the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs, and Giles Chichester, who initially opposed the link with the EPP.

The other Tories are broadly pro-Europe. Given that the sceptics are closer to the party line in London, while the federalists are aligned with the EPP, it is hard to say which is the mainstream. However, Mr Spencer and Lord Plumb, leader of the European Conservatives, are trying to reassert themselves.

Lord Plumb says in an article to be published this week in Euro Briefing, the Tory in- house magazine, that he firmly backs the EPP. 'Our leverage depends more than ever on an effective alliance with our conservative and Christian Democrat friends across Europe,' he says. 'What unites us is an idea of Europe with which Europeans feel comfortable, a Europe that is strong and free.' The message is unlikely to find much resonance.

John Major has tried to form a special relationship with Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, but Christian Democrat officials say it is 'a hopeless task'. Mr Martens is signalling his, and Mr Kohl's, impatience. In an apparent reference to Britain, Mr Martens said recently: 'There is one thing which no member state can escape: if it wants to be in the front rank of Europe, it must first set its own house in order, pursue a sound financial policy and not run after the pseudo-popular Euros-ceptics'.

Mr Martens is adopting a more ideological line than Leo Tindemans, his predecessor. His speeches are a call to federalists in Europe to press for radical steps when European leaders meet to rewrite the Maastricht Treaty in 1996.

Influential Tories, such as Chris Patten, once believed the party could become another in the band of Christian Democrat parties. That hope seems to have evaporated as the Euro-sceptics become more influential. Mr Martens warns against 'the populist lure of the safety and pseudo- sovereignty of the isolated nation-state'.