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 Europe isn't a Europe where competences could be withdrawn."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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