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EU officials expect pragmatism on Europe from new British government

European leaders have congratulated Conservative Party leader David Cameron on taking office as British prime minister, saying they don't fear a more euroskeptic course from the new leadership.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside 10 Downing Street, the residence of the British prime minister in London.

Britain's new leaders have very different views on the EU

European leaders congratulated Conservative party leader David Cameron on his first full day of work as Britain's new prime minister.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned David Cameron on Wednesday to congratulate him, and invited him to visit Germany soon for more comprehensive talks, according to a government spokesman in Berlin.

In Brussels, European Union officials hope the Liberal Democrats' presence in the new coalition will soften the Tories' traditionally euroskeptic stance, and help quieten hardline backbenchers within the center-right party.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also congratulated David Cameron, saying his government faced difficult choices in difficult times.

"What I hope is that the British prime minister will of course defend [his country's] national interests in the European setting," Barroso told reporters in Brussels, saying he was not concerned by Conservative election manifesto pledges to claw back powers from Brussels.

Uncertain stance

But no one in Brussels is quite certain how far the new British government will go in defending its national interests, especially now that the Liberal Democrats form a part of its leadership. As the country grapples with a runaway national debt and budget deficit, many in Brussels believe that Europe is not the top priority for the new Conservative-led government.

The British flag, the Union Jack.

Britain has the reputation of being a reluctant EU member

"Cameron has far too much on his plate to think about picking a fight with Europe," the European Policy Center's (EPC) acting director of studies, John Wyles, told Deutsche Welle. "And providing there is nothing major in the policy pipeline here [in Brussels], he is certainly not going to be looking for a fight."

Wyles also expects the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats not to fight over European policy in the short term, partly because the Liberal Democrats have been sufficiently vague on the issue in their manifesto.

The message filtering through to Brussels from London, according to Wyles, is that David Cameron's approach will be entirely pragmatic on Europe and relatively low key.

And so far, the new British government has signaled it will be 'business as usual' as far as the European Union is concerned.

Conservatives remain a concern

Still, EU officials are keeping a watchful eye on Britain's new foreign secretary, William Hague, who has been playing down policy differences over the European Union within the new coalition.

Hague did rule out further European integration for Britain, telling reporters it was a "red line" for his party, but he focussed more on the agreements reached in negotiations.

A chest of euro banknotes.

The Conservatives have no plans to join the single european currency

"The Liberal Democrats have readily agreed with us that it will not be the policy of this government to join the euro or to propose to join the euro in its lifetime," former Conservative party leader Hague said.

"Look, all British governments sometimes face difficulties over European policy."

Cameron pulled his Conservatives out of the main center-right grouping in the European Parliament, the European People's Party, because hardline Conservatives deemed the group too pro-European.

But the EPC's John Wyles believes that while this sounded some alarm bells in Brussels, it's unwise to over-analyze the decision.

"That was just a piece of red meat that [Cameron] felt he needed to toss to the euroskeptic majority in order to get elected," Wyles said.

"It was not well judged, and it has created a lot of resentment against the Conservatives among the center-right in Europe, but they will get over that - I think many of them have largely got over it already."

Some in Brussels even believe the Conservatives will find their way back to the European People's Party, but John Wyles said that this is an unlikely scenario. He believes the new prime minister will have to strike a balance on Europe - keeping hardline euroskeptics on board, while simultaneously staying sufficiently pragmatic to further Britain's interests on the continent.

Author: Nina Maria Potts (msh)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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