New British PM seeks to reassure Europe

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New British leader David Cameron will seek to reassure his French and German counterparts about his government's commitment to the EU, in his first foreign trip from Thursday.

The prime minister, who took power last week at the head of coalition government, will have dinner in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy, before talks Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

His Conservative party has a long history of euroscepticism -- it fiercely opposed the European Union's Lisbon Treaty -- but he is expected to seek a more pragmatic relationship with fellow EU heavyweights now he is in power.

"The commitment to work closely together with the EU will be an absolute priority," said a Downing Street spokesman, adding that the global economy and upcoming Group of Eight and Group of 20 summits were high on the agenda.

The French and German visits -- including a welcome with full military honours at Merkel's chancellery -- come barely a week after Cameron took office in a power-sharing deal with the more EU-friendly Liberal Democrats.

An early sign of Britain seeking to ease EU concerns was the appointment of a perceived moderate, David Lidington, as minister for Europe -- even if Foreign Secretary William Hague has a reputation as a staunch eurosceptic.

But concerns were fueled on Tuesday when Chancellor George Osborne demanded a total freeze on the EU budget, as he attended his first meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels.

Clara O'Donnell of the London-based Centre for European Reform (CER) said however that the 43-year-old Cameron -- Britain's youngest premier for nearly 200 years -- will seek to allay worries in other EU capitals.

Nevertheless some of Cameron's decisions -- notably his Conservative party's decision to withdraw from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) which Sarkozy's and Merkel's parties belong to -- could cast a cloud.

"It is important for him to start off on the right foot with Sarkozy and Merkel," O'Donnell told AFP, adding: "Merkel and Sarkozy do still resent Cameron for his decision to withdraw the Conservatives from the EPP."

"There's been apprehension in Europe, and Cameron is clearly going to want to allay those concerns, because he knows he needs his European partners to tackle the issues that matter to him," she added.

Britain's relations with Europe have long been prickly -- Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously brandished her handbag to demand Britain's EU rebate money back in the 1980s.

Tensions persisted under Labour premier Tony Blair, if for different reasons -- notably the 2003 Iraq war, which pitted a British-led pro-US camp of EU countries against firmly anti-war France and Germany.

Cameron's coalition with the Lib Dems -- whose polyglot, former EU lawmaker leader Nick Clegg is his deputy premier -- should help Cameron to calm European governments.

"Cameron himself is not someone that has any sort of emotional stance towards the EU. He's not like some sections of his party who genuinely do have an ... emotional dislike of the EU," said O'Donnell.

"Being in a coalition with the Lib Dems can help him. He can tell his electorate: 'We're sorry, we're in a coalition government, we have to make compromises'," she added.

While Paris and Berlin are his first foreign trips, the first foreign leader to call Cameron after he took office was US President Barack Obama, who invited Cameron to visit him in July.

The new British premier is expected at the Group of 20 summit in Toronto next month.

© 2010 AFP

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