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Cameron's EU balancing act

Now that Czech President Vaclav Klaus has signed the Lisbon Treaty, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, David Cameron, has ruled out a treaty referendum if elected to office next year.

The vast majority of Cameron's MPs and MEPs have agreed with this position, but this does not mean the Conservative Party is at ease with Europe. The Conservatives have, over the years, become increasingly eurosceptic, and Cameron was elected party leader with the support of the party's eurosceptic wing.

While ruling out a referendum on Lisbon - he had previously promised one had the treaty not been ratified by all the 27 members states - Cameron said a future Conservative government would create a legal requirement for a referendum to be held on any new treaty transferring power to Brussels.

Right now, this might not seem to be a bad thing. The EU has spent more than enough time debating institutional changes and needs to concentrate on other far more important issues.

What's more, Cameron's commitment need not affect further EU enlargement, as there would be no reason to hold a referendum on a treaty dealing only with the accession of new member states. A problem could arise, however, if another EU treaty was needed some time in the future so that the bloc could evolve further to deal with the influx of new members.

Then again, this problem will be dealt with by the EU when it arises. By that time there might not even be a Conservative government in office in Britain.

While ruling out a referendum, however, Cameron also made it clear that if he was elected Prime Minister, his new government would seek to take back from the EU control of certain areas such as social policy, employment and criminal justice.

All the other 26 member states would have to agree to such demands, and if that meant the reopening of the Lisbon Treaty - after eight years of negotiations - that would not go down well at all with the rest of the EU. Many EU governments are, in fact, dreading a Tory government in the UK. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner remarked: "Those people are so anti-European. It is going to be very difficult."

It is true that the ease with which the EU granted Czech President Vaclav Klaus his exemption from the Lisbon Treaty's Charter of Fundamental Human Rights - even though Klaus' suggestion that Czech property owners could be at risk from Germans expelled after the war was absurd - could encourage the Conservatives that their demands could be met.

However, the Czech Republic secured its opt-out before the Lisbon Treaty was ratified, while Cameron will attempt to change a text that would already be in force after he achieved power. Somehow, I don't think the EU will have much appetite for this, but anything is possible in Europe.

The Conservative Party has long been divided over its policy towards the EU, with the eurosceptic wing gaining ground in recent years. Ironically, however, it was the pro-European Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath who took Britain into Europe in 1973.

Under Margaret Thatcher's governments from 1979-1990, the Conservatives started to view the EU as a federalist plot against UK sovereignty, especially in the latter years, even though Thatcher signed up to the Single European Market in 1986, a landmark event in European integration.

John Major's 1990-1997 Conservative governments were sharply divided over Europe, particularly over the Maastricht Treaty, and these divisions greatly contributed to Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997.

Since then, the party has swerved more and more towards euroscepticism and has always elected leaders who are hostile to the EU. Kenneth Clark, probably the only pro-European in Cameron's shadow Cabinet was twice defeated in his bid to become Conservative Party leader since the Tories returned to the opposition benches.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of June's European Parliament elections, Cameron fulfilled a pledge - a ridiculous one at that - to withdraw his Conservative MEPs from the centre-right European People's Party, and instead join a new group, the European Conservatives and Reformists.

Besides the Conservatives, this small group consists of Poland's Law and Justice Party, the Czech Civic Democrat Party and five right-wing MEPs, representing five other countries. There is no doubt in my mind that the Conservative Party's influence in the European Parliament has now greatly declined as a result of its membership of this new political grouping.

One will have to wait and see how relations between the EU and a new Conservative government develop.

It is true that Cameron has vowed that as Prime Minister he would not "rush into some massive Euro bust-up", and that by ruling out a referendum on Lisbon he showed a practical side to his policies. Some analysts believe Cameron does not want to pick a fight with Brussels but is simply trying to be pragmatic while at the same time accommodating the more eurosceptic elements within his party.

Other observers fear a new Conservative government in Britain would signal a return to the days of Thatcher and Major, which were characterised by tensions between the UK and its EU partners. They view the fact that a Cameron government wants to 'reclaim' so many important policy areas from the EU will inevitably result in friction between the two sides.

Should relations deteriorate sharply - and I hope they don't - then calls could mount within both mainland Europe and the Conservative Party for the UK's departure from the EU.

After all, the Lisbon Treaty now has an exit clause under which any member state is free to negotiate its withdrawal. That would be a tragedy, and both Britain and the EU would be much worse off as a result.

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