Europe greets Britain's sceptical Cameron

20th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes Prime Minister David Cameron to France on Thursday, hoping to find common ground on financial regulation despite the British leader's eurosceptic reputation.

Cameron was due to arrive at the Elysee Palace for an evening dinner with the French leader, the Conservative's first foreign engagement since winning power in this month's close-fought British parliamentary election.

He is due to visit Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday, and in both capitals he will be greeted with a certain trepidation, given his party's history of hostility to European integration and market controls.

During the British election campaign Sarkozy's minister for Europe, Pierre Lellouche, broke normal diplomatic protocol when he called Cameron's European policy "pathetic", but there have been no clashes since the May 6 vote.

Cameron's Conservatives failed to win an outright majority and now rule in coalition with the far more pro-European Liberal Democrats, leading some here to hope there will not be a return to the frosty ties of the Thatcher years.

In the 1980s, Cameron's Conservative predecessor Margaret Thatcher fiercely opposed most attempts at deeper European integration and European summits in Brussels often descended into angry stand-offs.

By contrast, despite their different temperaments and different political camps, the centre-right leader Sarkozy built a good working relationship with Cameron's immediate predecessor, the Labour Party's Gordon Brown.

Now he must hope he can build a similar bond with Cameron with a view to winning his support for measures to beat the fiscal crisis with the European Union and reform the global economy at the level of the G20.

"Sarkozy was also a friend of Bush, that hasn't stopped him working with Obama," noted Christopher Chantrey, chairman of the British expatriate Conservatives group in Paris, referring to the last two US presidents.

Sarkozy has himself been philosophical about the change in tenant in Downing Street, choosing to believe that once the campaign rhetoric has died down his new partner will wake up to the need for closer European cooperation.

"If Cameron wins, he'll do the same as the others. He'll start out anti-European and finish pro-European. That's the rule," he predicted.

But, while Cameron has made no aggressive statements about Europe, the new coalition agreement his government published Thursday shows he remains determined not to cede new powers to the Union without a fight.

"We will ensure that there is no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the nest parliament," it said, vowing to resist a European directive on working hours and not to join the euro.

European officials noted this without alarm, noting that there are no plans currently on the table for a further expansion in European powers.

"The British are in any case always very practical. Their interest is to remain in Europe to control what goes on," one diplomat said.

"We are in any case obliged to work together to prepare joint European positions for international bodies like the G20. Europe will count for more if Germany, France and the United Kingdom are in agreement," she added.

Nevertheless, the first outlines of possible future disputes can be seen in the response to the fiscal crisis rocking the eurozone single currency bloc, of which Britain is not a member.

France and Germany are concerned that Cameron -- whose party is close to the traders and bankers of the City of London -- will resist European attempts to impose common market regulation across the continent.

They were also annoyed that Britain refuses to take part in their trillion-dollar emergency stabilisation fund, designed to fend off the risk that sovereign debt defaults in countries like Greece sink banks and the euro.

"No-one is going to force their hand, but we're all in the same boat. If a country in the eurozone collapses it isn't in their interest either. We are all interdependent," said the diplomat.

© 2010 AFP

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