British Treaty Snub Fuels PM's Eurosceptic Image
13 December 2007, 18:35 CET
(LONDON) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown voiced hope Thursday that the European Union can put institutional wrangling behind it, but faced more charges of euroscepticism for his failure to sign a new treaty with EU allies.
Brown cited diary conflicts for his delayed arrival in Lisbon, meaning he could not join fellow EU leaders at a grand signing ceremony for the new Reform Treaty, which replaces the defunct EU constitution.
The British premier eventually signed the treaty, but hours later than his EU counterparts after he spent much of the morning grappling with questions from lawmakers at a parliamentary committee meeting in London.
"There is no better manifestation of his lack of interest in Europe than his thinking that missing the signature would not be a big deal," said Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank.
"It's a piece of very ham-fisted diplomacy on the part of Brown," he added.
The Financial Times commented: "The prime minister's half-in, half-out appearance in the Portuguese capital is an apt metaphor for the government's approach to the EU."
"It recalls the behaviour of an observer, not a player, at Europe's top table," the FT added, condemning the "muddle-headed ambivalence of a man who doesn't know which gallery to play to."
Brown, who has resisted growing pressure for a referendum on the new treaty, rejected criticism that his late-show in Lisbon was a cowardly attempt to distance himself from the EU pact, widely unpopular here.
"I think you can see the priority I attach to attending this committee," he told the House of Commons' Liaison Committee, laughing off suggestions that he was snubbing the EU meeting.
Brown defends the EU treaty by noting that Britain negotiated opt-outs in key policy areas, meaning its sovereignty is not threatened by what the eurosceptic press says is an increasingly powerful "EU superstate."
But as finance minister, which he was until June, Brown had a reputation for being less keen on Europe than prime minister Tony Blair and reportedly vetoed Blair's plans to take Britain into the European single currency.
At regular meetings with his EU counterparts in Brussels, he was notorious for giving them lectures on the benefits of British-style free market reform -- that is, if he bothered to turn up at all.
Even before Thursday's awkward handling of the Lisbon treaty signing, commentators had already noted that Brown has not yet travelled to Brussels, nearly six months after taking office.
Brown maintains that a popular vote on the treaty is unnecessary as Britain has secured opt-outs, or "red lines" in key areas, safeguarding the country's rights and laws from Brussels.
But critics say the document is virtually identical to the EU constitution, which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. Blair promised a referendum on the constitution in Labour's 2005 general election manifesto.
Brown's "refusal to offer the people of this country a referendum on the Reform Treaty flies in the face of the electorate's wishes and his manifesto commitment," said Ruth Lea of eurosceptic group Global Vision.
In an interview with the Times newspaper Thursday, Brown said he hoped the signing of the new EU treaty will shift the bloc's focus away from an "institutional debate". "I think you'll find on the debate about global Europe, we are leading the way," he said.
He voiced hope "for the foreseeable future that the focus of Europe is now on economics, security, trade, economic reform, climate change and not on institutional debate."
Copyright 2007 AFP.