European Union leaders are to give tacit support to Gordon Brown's attempt to win re-election amid fears in Brussels that David Cameron would adopt isolationist and Eurosceptic policies as prime minister.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, are both expected to visit London before the general election for talks with the Prime Minister.
Although they will not intervene directly in the British election, their appearance alongside Mr Brown is bound to be seen as a sign of their displeasure with David Cameron. Traditionally, foreign leaders have been anxious to build bridges with a party enjoying a lead in opinion polls.
But Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy are dismayed by the Tory leader's decision to pull his party's MEPs out of the mainstream centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, to which both their parties belong. Mr Cameron has now compounded the problem by ordering Tory councillors to quit the EPP group on the EU's Committee of the Regions – even though they wanted to stay.
In addition to the high-profile visits, EU leaders will give the Prime Minister a central role at a special summit to discuss the economy in Brussels a week today. Mr Brown will open the discussion and the meeting is expected to endorse the key planks of his proposed "EU compact for jobs and growth" to lead Europe out of recession and create 15 million jobs.
British and French officials are finalising dates for Mr Sarkozy to visit London. Mr Brown will discuss a similar trip with Ms Merkel around the time of the EU summit. Both leaders have signalled that they are keen to come.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, will also visit London for an international conference of centre-left leaders hosted by Mr Brown on 19 February. He has promised Mr Brown his backing.
Brown aides do not expect his joint photocalls and press conferences with EU leaders to win votes in themselves. But they hope such events will reinforce Mr Brown's reputation as an experienced world statesman, allowing Labour to contrast that with Mr Cameron's relative inexperience. The Prime Minister will also meet President Barack Obama, who is hosting a nuclear security summit in Washington in April.
One EU diplomat said yesterday: "There is a lot of respect for Gordon Brown and a desire to help him without breaking the normal rules against taking sides in elections. He was the man who had a plan when the financial system went into meltdown and no one knew what to do. People know that David Cameron might be prime minister soon but some are wary of him and don't know what to expect."
Mr Cameron might seek separate meetings with EU leaders when they visit London. His aides deny that Britain would be isolated in Europe if he wins power, saying that he has worked hard behind the scenes to build constructive relationships with Mr Sarkozy, Ms Merkel and other European politicians.
Tory officials dismissed fears in Brussels that Mr Cameron would head the most Eurosceptic British government since Margaret Thatcher's. They pointed to his decision to abandon plans for a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon – a move which angered Eurosceptic MPs. "We will be constructive Europeans," one Tory frontbencher said. "We are not looking for a confrontation with Brussels; our priority will be to get the UK economy back on its feet."
However, Labour and Liberal Democrats will attack Tory policies on Europe during the election campaign. They will put the spotlight on the hardline views of their Polish and Czech partners in the European Parliament.
Yesterday the Liberal Democrats condemned the Tories' decision to try to form a new political group on the Committee of the Regions – which has so far met without success. Fiona Hall, leader of the British Liberal Democrat MEPs, said: "The Tories have been knocking on doors and begging anyone who is right-wing and has a pulse to help them form a new group. However, it looks like they have too few friends in Europe to form a credible alliance. This is humiliating for a party that aspires to be in government in the UK."
Mr Brown's blueprint is designed to create half a trillion euros of wealth across Europe by fostering a low-carbon, hi-tech economy covering public and private investment in energy, broadband and other sectors. It will also enhance the EU single market and open global markets through trade deals and ensure a reformed financial services sector. It proposes an annual economic summit of EU leaders to set targets and measure progress.
Flashpoints: Why Europe doesn't like Tories
* European People's Party – David Cameron's decision to pull Tory MEPs out of the dominant centre-right group in the European Parliament last year still baffles Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, whose parties are members. Cameron has added insult to injury by ordering Tory councillors on the EU's Committee of the Regions to leave the EPP group on that body.
* Tory plans to repatriate powers to the UK on social and employment laws will be resisted by other EU member states, who do not want to give British firms an advantage
* Eurocrats fear Cameron may seek a symbolic Thatcher-style showdown with Brussels – perhaps over Britain's contributions to the EU budget or demand for greater protection for the UK's criminal justice system from EU encroachment. The Tories' statement that they would "never" join the euro has angered members of the eurozone – even though there is little sign of Labour taking Britain in.
* Some EU leaders fear an incoming Tory government would cut public spending too quickly, jeopardising economic recovery.Reuse content