PARIS (Reuters) - Britain’s Conservative Party views the European Union with a mix of distrust and distaste. The feeling is mutual, with few, if any EU leaders looking forward to the prospect of David Cameron taking power next year.
But Cameron will be in for a rude shock if he thinks he can cajole or chivvy the 27-nation bloc in the way his Tory predecessor Margaret Thatcher once did, analysts say.
With opinion polls suggesting he will win the 2010 general election, Cameron is widely expected to form Britain’s most eurosceptical government since it joined the EU club in 1973.
Mainstream centre-right parties across Europe say efforts to reach out to Cameron’s team and establish working ties have been largely rebuffed and they expect a prickly relationship.
One senior German official said Cameron would receive a “cool reception” in Europe if he wins power, while an Italian diplomat predicted that Britain would be “isolated”.
The stakes are high, but analysts say Britain has the most to lose in any showdown over the division of power in Europe, with London’s political clout eroded by the financial crisis and by U.S. support for a strong EU entity.
“The continent is now basically united within the European Union and is looking quite homogenous,” said Daniel Gros, the director of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.
“If one island off the coast no longer wants to cooperate, then that is increasingly its problem and not Europe‘s.”
The nightmare scenario for most of Britain’s partners is if the Lisbon Treaty, which rationalises EU institutions, has not yet been ratified by the time of the British election.
The treaty makes it harder for anyone to snarl EU business by eliminating national vetoes on a swathe of issues. The text has been approved by 26 countries, with just Czech President Vaclav Klaus holding out, and Cameron has promised a referendum if it has not taken effect when he becomes prime minister.
Such a vote would undoubtedly scupper the project, which has been eight years in the making, and trigger a major EU crisis.
If Klaus climbs down and signs, as most EU diplomats assume he will, then some Conservative hardliners have urged Cameron to hold a referendum regardless.
Cameron has been non-committal, saying he would “not let matters rest there” should the treaty be approved. Diplomats believe he will avoid a vote and instead seek to add to Britain’s long list of opt-outs. He is likely to be disappointed, they say.
“To renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty you would need the approval of all 27 member states and that is not going to happen,” said a senior French diplomat, who like other officials insisted on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
In the past, Britain looked to newcomers in eastern and central Europe for support. Cameron will find few allies there now, with almost all EU governments moving in the opposite direction to London and looking for closer integration.
“Nobody in the rest of Europe really worries about a European superstate anymore. People are more concerned about Europe’s weakness, not its excessive strength,” said Pawel Swieboda, head of the DemoEuropa think-tank in Warsaw.
“The Tories’ attitude is seen as outdated in Poland. Euroscepticism is a thing of the past here.”
It is also seen as outdated across the Atlantic, where President Barack Obama’s team have made clear they want a broad, strong European Union. Washington may largely by-pass London if it feels Britain has no sway in Brussels, analysts say.
“The idea that the Conservatives would be much use outside an influential role in the European Union is totally mistaken. No one in Washington thinks that,” said John Palmer, a member of the advisory council of the European Policy Centre in Brussels.
EU diplomats assume that Cameron realises this and that once the rhetoric of an election campaign is over, he would seek a pragmatic relationship in order to remain relevant.
“If he wants to prevent the Germans and French from running the show, he’ll have to get involved,” the German official said.
However, there is a niggling worry in some minds that the Conservatives may turn the EU into an ideological battleground, regardless of the potential political and economic cost.
Paris, Berlin and Rome were shocked this year when Cameron ignored their pleas and pulled his party out of an influential alliance of mainstream centre-right groups in the European Parliament to join forces with disparate eurosceptics.
Gros of the Centre for European Policy Studies said a Conservative victory might finally clear up Britain’s EU status.
“The hope is that the time has come and that Britain must decide whether it wants to be in or out the EU,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Gareth Jones in Warsaw and Noah Barkin in Berlin)
Editing by Jon Boyle