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The British - activists in Europe

Gavin Hewitt | 22:17 UK time, Sunday, 6 June 2010

William Hague with Bernard KouchnerThe British government will try to demonstrate this week that they will be "highly active" in Europe. Europeans liked the fact that David Cameron made his first visits to Paris and Berlin.

This week, Foreign Secretary William Hague is following that up with visits to Paris, Rome, Berlin and Warsaw. Before the election some believed that a Conservative administration would be disengaged from Europe. The new coalition government is promising to be "assertive" and "pro-active".

I travelled on the train from London to Paris with William Hague. I formed the view that the new government would be highly pragmatic in its approach to Europe. Like other countries it would in effect operate a "pick and mix" policy. In foreign affairs it wants Europe to act more decisively. It will be very supportive over European moves to tackle climate change. It would like to see the EU expand. But it will be fiercely resistant to Brussels seeking more powers.

The Foreign Secretary's first stop is Paris. London believes ties can be strengthened with the French administration. There is an identity of interest on Iran, for example, where France has taken a firm line over Iran's nuclear policy. The British are looking for a strong resolution from the UN this week but will also be urging Europe to take further sanctions against Tehran.

The British will also be pushing for a tough pro-active role for Europe in the Balkans where old animosities, particularly in Bosnia, threaten to re-surface.

Before the election William Hague was regarded as instinctively hostile to the European project. Now, in what some may regard as a strange twist, he is urging the European Union not to lose its confidence as it battles with a crisis that threatens the eurozone. "That is a danger," says William Hague, that Europe will retreat. In particular London wants no backing off in plans to bring the Western Balkans and Turkey into the EU. The Conservatives have long wanted a union that is wider but not deeper.

The "greatest prize" for the British government is to extend the single market into the service sector. They will also support the extension of free and fair trade to the rest of the world. Both are seen as key to building the growth that Europe so seriously lacks.

These are all areas where the British will make their case but they will be tough negotiators, says the Foreign Secretary. They would not be in the business of "giving away the British rebate for nothing as Labour did".

But over the biggest crisis facing the EU, namely the threats to the euro, Britain will sit on the sidelines. The British will not contribute to bailing out the eurozone. I asked the Foreign Secretary whether that might change if Spain was in trouble and British banks were heavily exposed. No, an indebted country like Britain would not help out.

The UK is happy for eurozone countries to co-ordinate tax and spending policies if that helps the euro to survive but such measures would not be for Britain. Any proposal to significantly transfer new powers to Brussels would trigger a referendum.

So the new government sniffs opportunity in Europe. Some of the old certainties have been swept away by the crisis in the euro. The destiny of ever closer union is far from assured. The austerity cuts, too, are eating away at Europe's old social model.

Already some among Europe's powerful elites are arguing that the crisis makes the case for greater integration. They are very determined in this but others say that a stagnating Europe cries out for de-regulation, a scaling back of directives. A less intrusive union may be a stronger EU. The new British government will join that debate arguing for less regulation and it expects to find allies.


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