Continent waits to see if Clegg can put the brake on Tory Euroscepticism

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Indy Politics

A new era of British politics may have begun but Brussels is still waiting to see if it will mark a new era of British engagement with Europe. The hope, if not the firm conviction, is that Nick Clegg, as a Europhile, will successfully temper the sceptical instincts of his Tory colleagues and help them gain a more informed view of the workings of the European Union.

Britain's European partners have long been used to the UK's detachment, even under the supposedly pro-European Tony Blair. So the sense of relief that at least some EU-enthusiasts are now in Government was palpable yesterday. This perhaps helped explain the somewhat over-effusive reaction of the European Commission president, José Manuel Barosso, who spoke of his excellent relationship with David Cameron.

"I hope the British Prime Minister will continue to defend the national interest of Britain within a European setting. Gordon Brown was less European than his successor and we worked in a very cooperative spirit so I'm sure we'll have a good cooperation with the new government," he said.

Many have been encouraged by the way Britain's political leaders have gone about their coalition-building, suggesting that the process will "educate" Conservatives in the ways of doing business with 26 partners around the table.

"At last the British are discovering the spirit of compromise, which is the essence of EU policy-making. It's a skill they have never had to develop before, which is why they've been so often out of step with the EU. But now they will see that it's an art that they will have to keep refining," said a Brussels official.

In Mr Clegg, Brussels could not have hoped for a more model European pedigree. Educated at the elite College of Europe in Bruges, the Liberal Democrat leader went on to work with EU Trade Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan before being elected to the European Parliament. Add to that a handful of European languages, a Dutch mother, a Spanish wife. The result should be the ideal European flag-bearer. Officials also take comfort from the appointment of Chris Huhne (also a former MEP) as Energy Secretary, which has quelled fears that a Tory leadership might block an EU-wide push for tougher targets on emissions.

However, a more realistic prognosis is that Europe could be a major fault-line for the coalition. William Hague said he would pursue an "active and activist" policy towards Brussels.

Andrew Duff, a Liberal Democrat MEP, warned of storms ahead as the EU moves towards greater economic governance to stabilise the euro: "If the Tories think they can isolate themselves from the eurozone crisis, they are in dreamland. British banks are deeply implicated in the Greek debt crisis and anyone who thinks the sterling is safe is quite wrong."

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