PARIS (AP) — British Prime Minister David Cameron heads to continental Europe this week on a campaign to curtail EU involvement in national affairs. France and Germany, meanwhile, want to move in the opposite direction.
Which formula is more likely to ensure the EU's survival? That's the issue Cameron will face on his trip — and the existential question the EU is facing in the months to come.
Cameron is visiting Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Poland as he launches his mission to scale back the EU's political powers over member states on sensitive issues such as migration and welfare. Without such changes, he says, his compatriots may vote to pull Britain out of the EU altogether in a referendum he has promised before 2017.
But France and Germany, whose post-war alliance formed the backbone of today's European Union, have their own mission.
They sent an outline for closer economic cooperation in a letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reported by Le Monde. Juncker's spokesman Margaritis Schinas welcomed the idea Tuesday as "key" to solidifying the shared euro currency and European unity.
Cameron's official spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, said Tuesday that discussions about the eurozone shouldn't affect Cameron's trip this week. Britain does not use the euro.
But he conceded that Cameron's trip might not be easy.
"Of course you'll have reports of ups and downs," Gray told reporters in London. "But he is very clear about the mandate that he has and his determination to secure the best deal for the British people."
The conflicting initiatives are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But they do highlight a fundamental cross-Channel rift, with Britain ever more reluctant to throw in its lot with the other EU nations under the leadership of juggernauts Germany and France.
And Cameron may be acutely aware that in the past it has often proved next to impossible to reverse a proposal that Berlin and Paris put forward ahead of a summit of EU leaders. The next summit is June 25-26.
"The Franco-German contribution is useful, pertinent, important, key, I would say, in this process," Schinas said.
Cameron will be visiting Merkel and Hollande late this week, with the French and German leaders having a meeting in Berlin next Monday, likely with Juncker also in attendance.
Other EU countries may be a bit more open to Cameron's ideas, though appear to be remaining cautious so far.
Denmark, like Britain, is outside the euro and has opted out of some other EU institutions. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said last week that she "first wanted to hear what Mr. Cameron has to say about what kind of changes they wish to achieve. And we will take it from there."
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte shares some of Cameron's misgivings about Europe — saying it is too expensive, generates too much red tape and sometimes meddles in issues better left to individual member states. But the Dutch government, whose export-driven economy benefits from the border-free single European market, remains committed to reforming the EU from inside rather than opting out.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said Tuesday that change could be implemented if Britain limits its proposals to issues that would not force any changes in EU treaties, which have proven notoriously tough to amend.
"I believe that there are many areas where you can make significant progress for the EU without treaty change," he said. "I don't believe we should reject ideas just because they come from Britain."
Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said Tuesday she's "not in favor of any country leaving the EU now" but acknowledged that the EU should take into account "the problems facing each of its member nations."
Alain Dauvergne, adviser at France's Our Europe institute, said Cameron is unlikely to win immediate support this week for his campaign, but is launching an "exploration" to establish how far EU partners are willing to go to give him "window dressing" that he can bring back to British voters to keep them from leaving the EU.
"We are at the beginning of a negotiation that will be necessarily difficult, and will take time."
Jill Lawless in London, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report. Casert reported from Brussels.