LONDON (AFP) - A speech by Queen Elizabeth II warning against "division" in Europe as Prime Minister David Cameron plans a referendum on Britain's EU membership was interpreted by British media on Thursday as a political statement.
"We know that division in Europe is dangerous and that we must guard against it in the west as well as in the east of our continent," the monarch said at a state banquet in Germany on Wednesday, according to a copy of her speech on the monarchy's website.
"That remains a common endeavour," she said.
The speech, which focused on historical references to the lessons of World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall and German re-unification, was also a strong defence of Britain's role in Europe.
"The United Kingdom has always been closely involved in its continent. Even when our main focus was elsewhere in the world, our people played a key part in Europe," the queen said.
British newspapers were quick to express their surprise on Thursday, the same day that Mr Cameron is due to address European Union leaders in Brussels on Britain's desire for a looser association with the EU bloc.
"The Queen hints at desire for Britain to remain in European Union," read a headline in The Guardian.
The article said the speech "was replete with some subtle and other not so subtle hints that she believed Britain belonged in the European Union - her most public stance yet that she wished to avoid Britain voting to leave in a referendum".
The Daily Telegraph said "the Queen's comments may be interpreted by some as the sovereign expressing a view on the EU debate".
A headline in The Independent read: "Queen issues unexpected warning as EU leaders meet in Brussels for key summit".
But a Buckingham Palace aide quoted by the BBC rejected the interpretation of the queen's words.
"This is not about the EU. The queen is apolitical. She would never make a political point," the aide said, adding that the queen had been referring to risks of wider differences dividing the continent.
The queen has an impartial role in Britain and rarely makes any public statement that could be interpreted as relating to current political events.
On the eve of Scotland's independence referendum, however, the head of state reportedly told a well-wisher: "I hope people will think very carefully about the future".
The reported comment was widely interpreted as support for the campaign for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
The independence campaign was defeated in the September 2014 vote by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.