Tories struggle to find new partners in EU

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The Independent Online

Britain's Conservatives have pledged to defy threats of international isolation and quit Europe's main centre-right group for a new alliance which could include campaigners against gay rights.

After a day of talks in Brussels, William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said there were "initial grounds for encouragement" about creating a new political grouping in the European Parliament. He declined to identify the parties with whom he is negotiating.

The determination of the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, to quit the European People's Party and European Democrats (EPP-ED) has threatened to reawaken Tory divisions and leave him isolated on the international stage.

Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Nicolas Sarkozy, France's rising political star, made it clear in December they will sever contacts with Mr Cameron if he leaves the EPP-ED. Yesterday Mr Hague said: "We will not change decisions by people threatening us."

He ruled out any new grouping that would include Jean-Marie Le Pen, of the French Front National or Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the Italian wartime dictator.

But he did not exclude an alliance with Poland's Law and Justice Party, which believes in state intervention in industry and advocates the death penalty. Their president, Lech Kaczynski, banned a gay rights march when he was mayor of Warsaw and one Tory MEP yesterday described the party as "homophobic".

Such an alliance could embarrass Mr Cameron who has sought to present the Toriesas being inclusive and tolerant.

To form a new grouping under the European Parliament's rules the Conservatives need to assemble 19 MEPs from five different nations. That should be easy but, to make the group credible, Mr Hague needs to win over another large-ish party.

The most obvious partner is the Czech opposition party the ODS. But they will not consider any realignment before domestic elections in June. Many diplomats believe that, if they win at the polls, they will be reluctant to quit the EPP.

That may explain why Mr Hague yesterday refused to lay down any timetable for the move. "We have said months, not weeks but also we have said months not years," he argued.

That formulation rules out delaying the decision until after the next European elections in 2009.

Other possible allies include Italy's Alleanza Nazionale, Danish Eurosceptics and the Latvian nationalist party the TB/LNNK.

Under a deal negotiated in 1999 the Tories enjoy the financial benefits and political influence of their relationship with the EPP while being semi-detached and not having to obey their whip. Between five and 10 Tory MPs could defy a decision to leave the EPP-ED as they believe it is the closest grouping to the Tories in terms of their free-market outlook.

But about the same number is campaigning against membership of the Christian Democrat alliance arguing it is too federalist.

The absence of 27 Tory MEPs would be a blow to the dominant centre-right group in the Strasbourg assembly, though the formation of a new bloc is unlikely to deprive it of its majority.

Mr Hague said: "We want to ensure there is a new opportunity to put forward ideas for an open, modern, trading, flexible, Europe, and those ideas are different from the ideas on reviving the European constitution and many of the federalist solutions favoured by other parties in the EPP."