Europe to study UK election for policy shift

By Catherine Field

PARIS - Britain's general election tomorrow night will be closely followed elsewhere in Europe as Governments look for signs of change in a foreign policy often described as contorted.

Britain joined the European Union 37 years ago, becoming instantly one of the "Big Three" countries alongside Germany and France.

Yet it has never played a role equal to its status.

Instead, Britain's relations with Europe have been darkened by tensions and suspicion, with rows over money and resistance to European projects touching on the nerve of national sovereignty.

Britain opted out of joining the single European currency, the euro. It refused to join the so-called "Schengen" group of EU countries that have scrapped border controls.

It helped to suppress clauses in the Lisbon Treaty, ratified last year, that would transfer additional decision-making powers from national capitals to the EU centre.

British Governments like to portray Britain as a transatlantic bridge, whose heft in Europe and "special relationship" with America spans the two continents.

Seen through a different lens, Britain's commitment to Europe is simply semi-detached.

By having only one foot in Europe, say critics, Britain has weakened European unity and fanned support for its own eurosceptics.

"Britain has spent the 65 years since World War II making an art out of the avoidance of choice," said Christopher Hill, a Cambridge University specialist in international studies.

"Britain should stop pretending the EU is a serious threat to its sovereign independence."

Analysts said the outcome could maintain, weaken or strengthen Britain's European posture accordingly.

The "continuity" scenario was embodied by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a known if uninspiring quantity, said Alexandra Pardal of the European Policy Centre think-tank.

Premier since June 2007, the Labour leader is flawed in many capitals for lacking a European ideal or even a concept as to where Europe should head.

Yet he has also earned praise for dealing with the financial crisis and for forging a co-operative relationship with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In contrast, Conservative leader David Cameron is viewed as a problem. He pandered to the eurosceptics since taking the party's helm in 2005 and could deepen European disunity, say some.

"He has taken such a strong eurosceptic public position that it will be very difficult for him to take a soft line on Europe," said Philippe Defarges of French think-tank IFRI.

Cameron opposes any further federalism in Europe, wants to recover national powers in criminal justice, social and employment law and get an opt-out from the EU's charter of fundamental rights.

Last year, in a show of opposition to European integration, Cameron hauled Conservative euro-MPs from the mainstream centre-right group in the European Parliament.

The Conservatives are now teamed up in the Brussels-based Parliament with a scattering of right-wing nationalist deputies from Poland, the Czech Republic and Latvia.

The prospect of pro-EU change is thrown up by the rise of the Liberal Democrats. The centrists may win enough seats to force themselves into coalition, say opinion polls.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is a former Euro-MP and ex-worker at the European Commission.

He married a successful Spanish lawyer and speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish as well as English.

Clegg is in favour of European integration and in the past has called for Britain to join the euro.

To Europe's true believers, Clegg is a welcome break from the monolingual British leaders who fly to Brussels, pound the table for the television audience and jet home.

A top role for Clegg in the next government "seems like a dream come true", said Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"The fact that Nick Clegg voted against the Iraq war makes the prospect of a Liberal Democrat victory even sweeter."

Hopes that Britain will tilt more towards Europe are boosted by the argument that the "special relationship" with Washington has faded.

Despite his uncritical support for the Iraq War, Blair failed to wield much influence over President George W. Bush, in this view.

In addition, Britain's usefulness to Washington as a transatlantic "bridge" has slumped.

With the EU struggling to forge a political role equal to its economic might, President Barack Obama focuses far more on US relations with China, the emerging superpower, than with Europe.

- NZ Herald

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