Europe's uncertainty about Britain

European Union flags There are big questions about the role Britain will play - if any - in a more integrated EU

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Much as Britain is uncertain about its future relationship with Europe, so Europe is divided about what it wants from Britain.

On a range of issues the UK has strong allies. Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark are just three countries who share many of the same instincts as London and would want to keep Britain in the EU.

There is a larger group of countries who want the UK in the EU, but with conditions. Berlin shares a similar economic approach to London, but Chancellor Angela Merkel's red line is that she will not accept Britain blocking measures that are seen as essential to saving the euro.

This view was perhaps best summed up by the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who told a British audience last year: "Please don't expect us to help you wreck or paralyse the EU."

As regards helping Britain repatriate powers, that is a different matter. Some German papers have already complained of British opt-outs. "Why is Britain still in the EU?" the German tabloid Bild asked in late 2011.

Opt-outs opposed

French President Francois Hollande indicated in December his opposition to repatriating powers. "When a country makes a commitment," he said, "generally it's for life... Europe isn't a Europe where competences could be withdrawn."

The Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said: "In Europe there are some who would feel that their heart would be lighter if the UK left the union. Some French share this view."

Mr Monti went on to say that Britain must pose the fundamental question: "Do you want to remain in the European Union?"

Then there are European officials - and they generally oppose further opt-outs for the UK.

The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said: "If every member state were able to cherry-pick those parts of existing policies that they most like, and opt out of those they least like, the union in general, and the single market in particular, would soon unravel."

There is very little appetite to offer the UK any veto over financial regulation. It is widely believed in Brussels that "light Anglo-Saxon regulation" has contributed to the crisis.

Generally Europe wants the UK to stay with the European project.

A majority of countries might begrudgingly be prepared to offer Britain some concessions on employment laws or justice. That, of course, poses the question - why would such a concession be enough to persuade British voters to commit to support staying in the EU?

Battle for minds

The dilemma is much more fundamental. Europe, in order to save its currency, is forging ever closer ties.

As David Cameron says, the eurozone crisis is "changing the nature of the organisation to which we belong". The threat is that not only will more power gravitate to Brussels, but that the UK will see its influence decline.

The real fight over Britain has not yet been joined. Europe is waiting to see what David Cameron will say in his "big speech" later this month. In any event the polls probably do not reflect what would happen if there was a vote.

The heavy guns of big business have not yet been deployed, warning of the risk to jobs when 40% of British exports go to the EU. Already the business community is saying that investment decisions are being postponed because of uncertainty about Britain's future in Europe.

The battle for the minds of the British has not yet begun.

Britain has strong cards. Because of demographics it could be the largest economy in Europe by 2050. And much as UK exporters need Europe, so many European companies depend on access to the UK market.

For Britain, wanting a new deal with Europe will prove a tough, difficult negotiation. The UK has fewer friends than it used to have.

For some countries, it will be a fine line between wanting to keep Britain in the union and a reluctance to pander to what they see as "British exceptionalism".

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • Comment number 704.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 703.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 702.

    Interesting article in the Telegraph, even Barroso is concerned about the Euro turning Southern countries into a poverty trap. With unemployment in Greece/ Spain running over 25% and Portugal fast catching up, youth unemployment over 50% and pegging their countries to the euro impoverishing Latvia and Bulgaria, the can is running out of road.
    Populations will demand change sooner rather than later

  • rate this

    Comment number 701.

    699. Knut Largerson

    Thanks,for filling the gaps must read up on the European main land events of that war.
    Most of my knowledge of that conflict came from reading,
    The Crucible of war by Fred Anderson.
    Its quite a tome but so good I read it twice.

  • Comment number 700.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 699.

    697. Phffft

    Seven Years war involved most of the Major Continental Powers, as well as Native Americans, and Colonists in the America and various Indian States.

    In Europe the bulk of the Land forces on "our" side were German, and our Contribution was money and Naval Power.

    Our Land forces concentrated on India and America.

    It appears to be the first "Global" war?

  • Comment number 698.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 697.

    695. margaret howard

    Technically hundred year war the King(s) ruled both most of France & England.Increasingly powerful Barons in France questioned the
    statuesque.So it was an civil war in France, Barons vs King.
    Barons gaining upper hand.The 7 year war would be English vs French.England victorious from the back woods in America,Plains of Abraham Canada,to India & all the worlds oceans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 696.

    The counter arguement would be that the Africans can then keep what they have grown and not need handouts.
    CAP is wrong on many levels and especially on making the market unfair to none EU companies

  • Comment number 695.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 694.

    690 fireman

    "as the EU Bill of Rights only outlined the rights of the STATE (ie EU)"

    That's more than we've got.We only have an unwritten constitution which can mean anything and all things to all men

  • rate this

    Comment number 693.

    689 Mike

    "Actually Margret #687 USA TOTAL debt stands at 58 Trillion dollars ($58,000,000,000,000) and if that isn't scary, nothing is"

    Thank you - must have raced ahead since the last time I looked. Too scary to think about. (It's a bit risky to mention anything slightly criticial of the US these days without being deleted by the vigilantes)

  • rate this

    Comment number 692.

    Thanks Gavin...yup...some way to go, but we`ll see the bunfight soon enough....cue a headache for Cameron..will he man up for UK interests, will backbenchers compromise any meaningful negotiation..

    Will individual members states work on a utitilitarian ethos..

    How responsible will press reporting be..?

  • Comment number 691.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 690.

    The only thing CERTAIN about the EU, is that it is NOT a democracy and its citizens are not covered by it, as the EU Bill of Rights only outlined the rights of the STATE (ie EU).
    Democratic deficit bigger than world financial deficit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 689.

    Actually Margret #687 USA TOTAL debt stands at 58 Trillion dollars ($58,000,000,000,000) and if that isn't scary, nothing is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 688.

    @Knut Largerson

    "My mistake"

    Not your only one.

    BTW, You didn't explain why it is at all necessary for any UK citizen to move to Greenland if they vote against the EU in a referendum but that's because your talking complete and utter rubbish and you know it.

    "thought English wasn't your forte"

    Well its certainly not yours!

    "So a bit dense then?"

    Oooh - your feeling a little defensive?

  • rate this

    Comment number 687.

    660 Eddy

    "Another topic from Gavin to distract the BBC readership from the parlous debt position of the US, and other more pressing concerns"

    US debt of $17 trillion and rising fast.That is $53.000 per person

    And unlike the EU, no universal healthcare, 50m without medical insurance and the same number on food stamps

    Parts of it look like the 3rd world rather than a superpower

  • rate this

    Comment number 686.

    Sorry to have to post this here

    Come on BBC where is our opportunity to comment on the farce that is going on in the House of Commons at the moment

    The Tories have spent a lot of money on this political stunt today and we would like to let them know what we think of it

  • rate this

    Comment number 685.


    "analysis of your own society is lacking - the seriousness of your conclusions is in question"

    Your "analysis" of anything is laughable, your "conclusions" are a joke and your Posts are a pointless waste of everyone's time.

    "I suggest you begin again"

    More patronising piffle - I suggest that you "start again" by learning to read and then you may be able to say more than generalisations!


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