May 19, 2010
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – in his first foreign trip as Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron will later this week meet his French and German counterparts, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, after years of faltering relations with the two countries as leader of the opposition.
Mr Cameron is due to meet the French president on Thursday in Paris while chancellor Merkel will receive him in Berlin the following day.
The highly symbolic trip is part of an orchestrated attempt by the Conservative-led government to convince EU allies that the broadly eurosceptic Tories are more constructive and open than their reputation in mainland Europe would have one believe.
The Conservatives’ relations with Paris and Berlin have been frosty since Mr Cameron last year decided to pull his MEPs out of the European People’s Party – the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament that houses both Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel’s parties.
Both leaders were reportedly angry at the move particularly as the Conservatives then went into an alliance with fringe hard-right parties from eastern Europe.
More recently, Britain’s traditionally more aloof relationship with Brussels has been underlined by the eurozone crisis. The country is not a member of the single currency and so has been largely absent from the panicked negotiations to shore up confidence in the euro.
The previous finance minister Alistair Darling made it clear that Britain will not contribute to the €440 billion eurozone “special purpose vehicle” fund agreed early last week to rescue struggling members of the single currency.
However, since taking up the reins of power along with the Liberal Democrats last week, the Conservatives have made several gestures towards their EU partners.
Their coalition government programme drops some of the key proposals of the party’s pre-election programme that had made many officials in Brussels wary, such as repatriating powers in the area of EU social and employment legislation.
Key ministers have promised constructive engagement with Europe, while foreign minister William Hague, from the more robustly eurosceptic wing of the party, recently wrote a conciliatory piece for Europe’s World, the house journal of the Brussels-based Friends of Europe think-tank.
The Financial Times notes the surprise around Brussels tables when Chancellor George Osborne turned up at the early hour of 8am for an EU finance ministers meeting, and writes of the “astonishment” of colleagues when UK farm minister Caroline Spelman worked the meeting room speaking in both French and German.
However, some fights in the future are expected. Britain is keen to make sure that new rules on regulating hedge funds are not too onerous on companies, while negotiations on the next multi-annual EU budget, expected to come to a head in 2013, are also set to expose well-worn divisions such as the French defence of farm spending and London’s defence of its annual rebate.
Speaking about the immediate future, Mr Osborne said there should be a freeze on EU spending next year. The European Commission has proposed a six percent increase in the budget for 2011, something the British chancellor said was not doable amid the economic downturn.
“There should be a cash freeze in the EU budget, given what many member states are having to do,” he said on Tuesday after the finance ministers’ meeting.
Mr Osborne also did not indicate that Britain would change policy and contribute to the eurozone fund, something that remains voluntary for the 11 member states that do not have the euro.