Tories seek Gaullist alliance: Conservatives want new EC partners, writes Andrew Marshall in Strasbourg

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S Conservative Party is planning a series of meetings with the French Gaullists, its second foray into trans-European party links. The meetings in early autumn will include elected members from Westminster, Paris and the European Parliament, and party advisers from both sides, according to Conservative MEPs.

The move shows that despite sniping from the Tory right, John Major is intent on building bridges with other European parties. Before next year's European elections, the Prime Minister is likely to come under increasing pressure from the European wing of the party and other EC leaders to clarify his support for the EC.

The meetings with the Gaullists also suggest that contrary to right- wing Conservative opinion, the party has not put all of its European eggs in one ideological basket. Relations with Europe's federalist Christian Democrats, especially in Germany, have been assiduously built up over the last few years and have led to criticism in Conservative Euro-sceptic circles.

The party is linked in the European Parliament with the European People's Party (EPP), which groups the EC's Christian Democrats. They are much more federalist than the mainstream Conservative party, and this has caused problems. Right-wing anti-Maastricht Tories have pointed to elements in the EPP's basic programme as indicating that Conservative MEPs are 'covert federalists'. However, the Tories have not signed up to the programme and are drawing up a separate election manifesto.

The link with the Gaullist RPR party reflects Conservative views of the party's strength in France following this year's legislative elections, which put it in government with the centre-right UDF. The pro-European wing of the RPR is intent on building a common platform for the forthcoming presidential elections with the UDF, but like the Conservatives, the party has a Euro-sceptic wing.

Conservative MEPs admit that the Gaullist foray is to some extent a 'second front' after the EPP link-up. The Christian Democrats are weakening in Germany, and in Italy have been gravely wounded by corruption charges. But more broadly, Conservative sources say, it underpins the Tory party's intention to build bridges with its EC partners.

The new interest in France comes before the 1996 intergovernmental conference, which will rewrite the EC's treaties. Britain has been more ambitious in starting a debate on the subject than any other EC country. Alliances with other countries below government level are part of this strategy, say Conservative MEPs.

This burst of activity reflects a regrouping before the European elections in 1994. They will be an important test of support for the Conservatives, and may also force Mr Major to confront the Euro-sceptics in his party. At a recent meeting between Mr Major and Tory MEPs, the Prime Minister told them the party's attitude would be more supportive than at the last election in 1989, when the Conservatives were routed.