Tories will do ‘whatever it takes’ for US trading ties

The Conservatives would be prepared to renegotiate the 1957 treaty that created the EU trading bloc to strengthen economic ties with the US, William Hague has said.

The shadow foreign secretary admitted changing the Treaty of Rome would be an “enormous exercise” but said it should be something championed by the UK government.

He was speaking ahead of a speech this evening, when he will call for the creation of a transatlantic free trade area extending beyond the EU to the US.

“We must, without abandoning the aim of future success, look for other ways to break down barriers to trade,” he is expected to say.

“I have been surprised by the breadth of support across Europe for a transatlantic free trade area. It is a logical extension to the single market.

“If we think that removing barriers to trade within Europe is a good thing – removing the transatlantic barriers would be even better.”

In an interview on Today earlier, Mr Hague said the Conservatives were prepared to do “whatever is necessary” to create this trading zone.

However, he accepted in the meantime that the Tories must work within the EU, and will tonight insist that “Britain’s place is in the European Union – a strong player in Europe, not at the margins”.

Although his party would continue to oppose excessive regulation from Brussels, he will say: “Britain has the opportunity to drive a new agenda for the future of Europe. With the right priorities the EU can open up freedom and opportunity.”

Speaking to Today the Eurosceptic admitted that the EU “has brought many benefits”, but following the rejection of the European constitution by French and Dutch voters last year, said it was time to “put forward new ideas”.

This was why, he explained, Mr Cameron had promised the Conservatives would leave their current grouping in the EU parliament, the EPP, and create a new one with like-minded parties.

Reports this morning suggested Mr Hague is attempting to play down this pledge, which has met opposition from European leaders such as German chancellor Angela Merkel and Tory MEPs alike, and will barely mention it in this evening’s speech.

One party official is quoted as saying that the shadow foreign secretary believes Mr Cameron’s promise to withdraw from the EPP within a year is not possible.

This morning, Mr Hague insisted there was no question of reneging on the pledge, but said an “additional requirement” had been added to ensure the Tories formed a new grouping before withdrawing from the old.

He expects to make an announcement on this in July, but said: “I think it’s very important to create a new group in the European parliament, because this is not about tactical manoeuvres, this is about ideas, about the future of Europe.

“The whole point about creating a new group is actually to be with likeminded parties saying, look, we need a modern open trading Europe, not an ever more centralised Europe.”

Mr Cameron’s main concern with the EPP is that it advocates a federal Europe, but Mr Hague is running into problems to find other moderate centre-right groups to join with.

His plans were dealt a major blow at the weekend when the leaders of two potential allies, the Law and Justice party in Poland and the Czech Civic Democrats (CCD), fell out. The Polish party has refused to join the Tories if their grouping includes the CCD.