French minister retreats on criticism of British Tories

6th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

A French minister has backtracked after branding Britain's opposition Conservatives' EU policies "pathetic", causing a firestorm around the party tipped to form the next government in London.

LONDON - Pierre Lellouche, France's Europe minister, launched an extraordinary broadside against opposition leader David Cameron, saying his party's approach had "castrated" Britain in Europe.

But Lellouche later told the BBC that when he dismissed Cameron's plans to take back powers from the European Union as "pathetic", he had meant to say "sad".

"Well, pathetic in French means sad, I meant I was saddened, we are saddened in France to see the debate going in more and more eurosceptical, euro-hostile tones," Lellouche said.

"We are celebrating next week the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall -- that's it, we have unified European peace, we have now the institution, we should be talking about the future."

Lellouche said he understood his remarks, made to The Guardian newspaper, had been off the record and he had not expected to see them in print.

His comments caused a furore in Britain, where opinion polls put Cameron on course to become prime minister at the next election, due by June.

The attack -- dismissed as an "emotional outburst" by a senior Conservative -- came after Cameron backtracked on a "cast-iron guarantee" to hold a referendum on the European Union's Lisbon Treaty.

Cameron on Wednesday said the move was no longer practical since the Czech Republic became the last country to ratify it this week.

Cameron said the Tories would take back powers from Europe by securing opt-outs on human rights plus some social and employment legislation, as well as limiting the power of the European Court of Justice in Britain.

"It's pathetic. It's just very sad to see Britain, so important in Europe, just cutting itself out from the rest and disappearing from the radar map," Lellouche told the newspaper in response.

He accused Tory foreign affairs spokesman and former leader William Hague of a "very bizarre sense of autism" in their discussions over Europe, adding that the party's withdrawal from the main centre-right group this year "essentially castrated your UK influence in the European Parliament."

Hague hit back, saying the Conservatives would be "tougher" in negotiations than Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ruling Labour party and could face "abuse" for that.

"We have had one little emotional outburst from one French minister but I don't think we should take that as a sign of how things will be in Europe in the future," he told Sky News television.

Cameron, meanwhile, insisted his new policy was "doable, credible, deliverable" -- by contrast with Brown, who critics say broke a promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which aims to streamline EU decision making.

Cameron's new stance has already caused resignations within the party, riven by destructive splits on Europe since the days of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Two MEPs quit the party's front bench in the European Parliament over the move, including arch-Eurosceptic Daniel Hannan, who was legal affairs spokesman and is still urging a referendum.

Cameron had said he wanted to avoid a "massive Euro bust-up" on the issue.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, a former EU trade commissioner, said the controversy revealed the Conservatives' main preoccupation.

"If the Tories get into government, we now know what will obsess them -- picking fights in Europe and isolating Britain in the EU," he said.

Julie Smith, of Cambridge University's Centre for International Studies, questioned if Cameron could live up to his latest pledges.

"It's extremely difficult to think he's going to be able to do so," she told BBC radio.

"In order to repatriate powers, he would have to have the agreement of all 26 of the other member states. It's difficult to see they're going to do that."


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