By Claire Davenport
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The president of the European Commission hit out at the leader of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament on Wednesday, saying his party's copying of the eurosceptic UKIP group risked election defeat.
In unusually frank remarks, Jose Manuel Barroso broke with the Commission's usual reluctance to comment on national politics to challenge the Conservatives' stance of questioning Britain's continued membership of the European Union.
Responding to criticism from Martin Callanan that he had not "delivered on any of the big promises or any of the grand rhetoric", Barroso countered that the Conservatives risked losing British elections to the eurosceptic UK Independence Party led by Nigel Farage.
"I think increasingly your party and your Group is looking like UKIP, a Eurosceptic, anti-European group," Barroso said, having earlier delivered his annual "state of the EU" speech.
"And I am starting to have some doubts that you are going to be elected yourself in Britain, or if it is not UKIP that is going to be the first force in the British elections," he said.
"Because when it comes to being against Europe, the people, between the original and the copy, prefer the original," he added. "That is probably why they are going to vote more for Mr. Farage than for Mr. Callanan."
If re-elected in 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to give Britons an EU membership referendum by the end of 2017, raising the prospect that the world's sixth-largest economy could leave the organization.
In the meantime, Britain is seeking to reshape its ties with the EU.
UKIP argues Britain should leave the EU to shake off what it says is its stifling bureaucracy and meddling interference in everyday British life.
The party has already attracted many disaffected Conservative voters - its membership has risen four-fold to 30,000 this year - and came only narrowly behind the Conservatives at the last European elections in 2009.
Dismantling relations with Brussels will be complex. Germany and France have told Britain they will block attempts to cherry-pick from EU policy.
(Writing by John O'Donnell; editing by Andrew Roche)