Will They Waver? Britain Looks for Allies among the EU 26

Having vetoed his way into isolation at last week's European Union summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron is now looking for allies. And there are indications he might find them. The Czech Republic and Hungary on Thursday agreed that tight fiscal rules should only apply to euro-zone members.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking new alliances in Europe this week.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking new alliances in Europe this week.

Great Britain, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron assured on Thursday, wants to help the European Union design its fiscal pact aimed at finding a way out of the ongoing euro-zone debt crisis. "We are seeking to engage constructively in that discussion," Steve Fields told reporters on London.

But it would seem that is only part of the story. At the same time, Cameron, who led his country into isolation at last week's EU summit, is looking for allies. According to his office on Thursday, the prime minister has spoken to the leaders of Ireland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden.

"There is no question of it being 26 to 1," Cameron said on Wednesday night in a meeting with Conservative parliamentarians. "There are a number of countries not at all sure what they are being asked to be signed up for."

Britain drew the ire of its European Union partners at the summit for refusing to agree to EU treaty changes which would institute mandatory penalties for countries in violation of debt and deficit rules and which would provide Brussels with some measure of fiscal oversight. The changes have been championed most prominently by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the foundation for efforts to put an end to the ongoing debt crisis in the euro zone, which has brought the common currency to the edge of the abyss. The United Kingdom, concerned about financial market regulation, was the only EU member state to use its veto against calls to change the EU treaty. Instead, a new agreement is currently being fashioned among the remaining 26 EU members.

This week, though, has revealed that not all 26 are quite as committed to fiscal union as it appeared last weekend. Ireland has suggested that it might have to submit any changes to the Lisbon Treaty to a nationwide referendum. The Czech Republic and Sweden are also seen as possible candidates to back out of the deal, both require parliamentary approval before they can move forward, as does Hungary.

'Nothing Positive'

According to Czech media reports, the leaders of the Czech Republic and Hungary met on Thursday to discuss the pact and agreed that it should only apply to countries once they join the euro zone. They also said that tax harmonization would "bring nothing positive, nothing good." Prague has said that, while it will participate in talks on the deal, it will only decide whether to join once the details have been completed.

The process is set for completion in March 2012. On Thursday, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy called for a special EU summit for late January or early February to discuss the pact.

Many European leaders have blasted Cameron for his decision to veto the agreement. French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly called him a "stubborn child" this week, according to the well-sourced French satire weekly Le Canard Enchaine. He said Cameron had only had one goal "protecting the (London) City, which wants to continue to behave like a tax oasis. No other country supported him, which is what you call a clear political defeat." Meanwhile, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that Britain's negotiating position at the summit had "made compromise impossible."

Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, now head of the ADLE liberal parliamentary group in the European Parliament, spoke in his native Flemish in parliament on Wednesday, saying he didn't think that English would be an "appropriate language."

Chancellor Merkel, for her part, has sought to avoid confrontation. "It is beyond doubt for me that Great Britain will in future continue to be an important partner in the European Union," she said the same day. "Great Britain is a reliable partner for Europe."

Others offered less sanguine remarks. Former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who now heads the center-left Social Democratic Party's group in parliament, said he expected that Britain would withdraw from the EU in the medium-term. He told the Rheinische Post newspaper he feared that the decisive step for withdrawing from the EU had already been made. "If the regular meetings format of the EU will be a Europe of 26 without Great Britain, then an alienation process will be inevitable and, in the end, irreversible."

cgh -- with wire reports


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