By Stephen Eisenhammer
OXFORD (Reuters) - German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble urged Britain on Monday to remain strongly engaged in the European Union, responding to a tide of Euroskepticism that Berlin fears could sweep London towards the exit.
Schaeuble's plea, delivered during a visit to Oxford University, came days after British Foreign Secretary William Hague mapped out a very different vision of a much looser EU in which Britain would opt out of many policies.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would visit Britain, an "important partner", for talks with Prime Minister David Cameron next week.
"In my view the British voice is sorely needed in this (European) competition of ideas," Schaeuble, known for his passionately pro-European views, told a mainly academic audience at Saint Anthony's College in Oxford.
"I firmly believe Europe would be the poorer without this input to our debates. Britain should retain and regain a place at the center of Europe because this will be good for the European Union."
Merkel echoed his comments on Monday evening at a gathering of members of her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) in the northern German town of Schwerin.
"Britain is an important partner in the European Union ... Britain has to some extent other ideas (about Europe), it does not want such close integration. But from the German perspective, from the point of view of our interests it is an important member of the EU," she said.
"They (the British) are for free trade, for greater competitiveness, so they are a very good partner."
Berlin has long valued London's free-marketeering influence in the EU as a counterweight to France and other states that take a more protectionist line and favor state intervention in industry.
But Germany, the EU's biggest economy, has grown increasingly frustrated with the Euroskeptical instincts of Cameron and the bulk of his Conservative lawmakers.
To Berlin's dismay, Cameron has signaled he wants to use the euro zone crisis and the moves it has fostered towards much closer integration between the area's 17 member states to negotiate a much looser relationship between Britain - which does not have the euro - and the EU.
Last Tuesday Hague told his hosts in Berlin that public disillusionment in Britain with the EU was "the deepest it has ever been" and he rebuffed pleas from Germany and Finland to join a pan-European banking union and push for more joint EU foreign and defense policy.
"Europe is also good for Britain ... I fear this is not always recognized," Schaeuble said in Oxford on Monday.
Among those listening to his speech was Chris Patten, a former British EU commissioner and one of a dwindling band of prominent pro-European Conservatives. Patten is now chancellor of Oxford University and is no longer politically active.
(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke in Schwerin; writing by Gareth Jones; editing by Andrew Roche)