By Alice Ritchie (AFP) – Oct 4, 2011
MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — With the eurozone in crisis, the issue of Europe has returned to stalk the Conservatives, despite Prime Minister David Cameron's efforts to keep it under wraps.
Although the faltering economy has dominated this year's Tory conference in Manchester, the debt crisis engulfing the European single currency has ensured that Britain's relationship with the EU is a hot topic.
The issue has come to a head in recent weeks through a new group of Tory MPs established to look at reforming the EU, and in a fresh push for a referendum on Britain's ties with Europe, nearly four decades after the last one in 1975.
Wary of how Europe tore the Conservatives apart in the 1990s, Cameron has tried to dampen the debate, dismissing calls for a referendum on EU membership.
But many delegates in Manchester cite ties with Brussels as a major concern, packing out the numerous fringe events dedicated to the subject and cheering enthusiastically at any criticism of EU red tape.
A YouGov poll this week suggested that 74 percent of Tory voters want a referendum on Europe and 68 percent want Britain to leave altogether.
"The eurozone has driven all of this back up the agenda," said George Eustice, a Conservative MP who helped set up the new group of eurosceptic lawmakers calling for reforms to the European relationship.
He believes Britain should stay within the EU, but says the failure to address the 27-nation bloc's increasing political alignment, and the waves of EU legislation and court judgements, has caused resentment.
"The failure to reform the EU, to grasp this nettle and think about the kind of relationship we want with the EU, means hostility is growing," he told AFP.
The 120-strong new group of Tory MPs met for the first time last month with the aim of reforming the EU, from finding ways to reject European Commission initiatives to returning powers in areas like employment.
And in the conference centre, among stalls selling tailored suits and the stands of pro-hunting lobbyists, many delegates agree.
They cite concerns over immigration, but also point to the eurozone debt crisis, and its implications for closer fiscal union.
"A lot people think as I do, that we shouldn't be part of the EU," said one delegate in her 60s, Joanna McIlhatton.
But she admitted it was more pragmatic to work within the EU, a sentiment that Eustice hopes will be replicated across the party and allow them to debate the issue without "having a meltdown".
Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has led calls for a referendum next year on a "trade-only" relationship with Brussels, but he also insists it must not become too much of a distraction as the government tackles a record budget deficit.
"Europe is a key issue that needs to be tackled but it shouldn't become an obsession," he told AFP.
In a round of interviews on Tuesday, Cameron dismissed any referendum on EU membership, saying most people recognised that it was in Britain's interests to stay in the European grouping.
He conceded that under a new law passed by his government, a referendum might be held if the crisis among the 17 countries using the euro leads to a new EU treaty.
But he stressed: "What people really want is not a choice between in or out, but a choice between the Europe we have now -- which frankly I'm not happy with -- and a sort of relationship where we get some powers back from Europe."
Diplomats in Brussels told AFP they are not seriously concerned about calls for a referendum on British membership of the EU, although they accept London may try to create some distance with Brussels.
Philip Whyte, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, blamed Europe for the rise in Tory euroscepticism, which has so far been kept in check by their coalition partners, the pro-European Liberal Democrats.
He cited financial services regulations which appear to specifically target Britain, such as tough new rules on hedge funds -- 80 percent of the industry is based in London -- and the proposed new financial transaction tax.
"If the EU continues to stir the increasingly eurosceptic backbench on the Tory party, Europe could become a very divisive point for the coalition itself and it could also become a very awkward subject for Cameron," he said.
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