Page last updated at 18:00 GMT, Thursday, 5 November 2009

French minister bids to calm row

Pierre Lellouche says he was not aware comments made in a private phone conversation would be printed

French minister Pierre Lellouche has said he is not worried about the Tories' new European policy and would be able to work with David Cameron.

Mr Lellouche had appeared to be highly critical of the UK opposition's pledge to take some powers back from Brussels, claiming the stance was "pathetic".

But he told the BBC he considered shadow foreign secretary William Hague a "friend" and would work with him.

He said he was prepared to "live with" whatever policy the UK had on Europe.

Mr Lellouche, Minister for Europe under President Sarkozy, raised eyebrows when he told a British newspaper that the Conservatives risked "castrating" themselves in Europe by pursuing their current policy.

In the aftermath of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the Conservatives' decision to drop their referendum pledge, leader David Cameron has vowed to give the British people a vote on future treaties transferring any further powers to Brussels.

He also said he would seek to renegotiate existing laws to regain national supremacy over some social, employment and criminal justice powers - which would require the approval of all 27 EU states.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Lellouche said he was "saddened" by the tone of "Euro-hostility" in the Conservative discussions over Europe.

He said that the Tories did not appear to want to "listen" to France and other EU members over the future direction of Europe.

Language error

However, he toned down his early criticism, saying his use of the words "pathetique" - which can mean sad or unfortunate in French - had been misunderstood.

No-one is going to steal the sovereignty of the UK without the approval of the British people
Pierre Lellouche, French minister for Europe

He also said he did not realise the word "autistic" - which he used to describe the Tory policy - could be seen as offensive in English and he retracted the remark.

The word is commonly used in France to describe a stubborn person who does not listen.

But Liberal Group MEP Liz Lynne, vice-president of the European Parliament's disability group, said she was "deeply concerned" about the use of the word in a derogatory manner and said Mr Lellouche should apologise.

The French politician has made it clear he thought he had been speaking off-the-record and had not expected his comments to be reported in The Guardian newspaper.

Mr Lellouche, who describes himself as "one of the most Anglophile politicians in France", said he would be prepared to talk to and work with a Conservative government should it win power.

'Emotional outburst'

He said he was "convinced" that the UK would "eventually" get back to playing a "full role" in Europe under the Tories "despite this rhetoric" - which he attributed to the Conservatives' long-spell in opposition.

I respect William Hague's talents and intellect, but his appeasement of those using the Conservative party to promote UK independence from Europe makes people doubt his judgment
Edward McMillan-Scott, ex Tory MEP and European Parliament vice-president

"Europe needs the UK and you need Europe," he said, adding: "It is important".

He added: "No-one is going to steal the sovereignty of the UK without the approval of the British people."

The Conservatives had shrugged off Mr Lellouche's comments as an "emotional outburst" and said they did not reflect attitudes higher up the French government or in other European capitals.

And reaction to the Conservative policy elsewhere in Europe has been generally muted.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European integration could not be "jeopardised" while Belgian's foreign minister said the comments should be treated as "political rhetoric" and the Tories' outlook was likely to change should they win power.

Internal row

The Tories' decision to abandon hopes of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty has caused internal ructions, with two Tory Euro MPs quitting their frontbench posts in protest.

Daniel Hannan MEP said he had stepped down as Conservative legal affairs spokesman in the European Parliament, to concentrate on campaigning for a referendum on Europe.

Roger Helmer MEP resigned as Tory employment spokesman in Brussels, saying he could not "justify nor support" Mr Cameron's policy.

Mr Hague dismissed the resignations, saying support among Tory MPs and Euro MPs for the new policy was "near unanimous".

But MEP Edward McMillan-Scott, who was expelled from the Conservatives for opposing their new alliances in the European Parliament, said Mr Helmer and Mr Hannan should be disciplined and Mr Hague moved to a different position.

Mr McMillan-Scott, who is vice-president of the European Parliament, said: "The UKIP-Tendency within the Conservative Party could prevent the Tory victory at the general election which I look forward to.

"I respect William Hague's talents and intellect, but his appeasement of those using the Conservative party to promote UK independence from Europe makes people doubt his judgment."

Labour said the Tories' policy was widely regarded across Europe as "inept and wrong-headed" while the Lib Dems said the "unseemly row" was a sign of things to come if the Conservatives win the next election.



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