Gordon Brown has long been regarded across the European Union as the UK government’s arch-eurosceptic.
In nearly a decade as chancellor of the exchequer, the man most likely to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister has done little to mitigate that view.
Mr Brown kept Britain out of the euro, despite Mr Blair’s earnest endeavours to take sterling in. He has railed against the structural problems with the European economy. Last year, he fought tooth and nail to ensure Britain gave up as little as possible of its annual budget rebate on EU contributions.
Yet in recent weeks, Mr Brown’s approach to Europe has undergone a distinct change. The chancellor has not given up his firm objection to Britain ever joining the euro. And this month he delivered a powerful attack on what he calls ‘economic patriotism’ the habit of some countries of blocking cross-border mergers that rob them of national industrial champions.
However, Mr Brown, who has never hidden his dislike for gatherings of EU finance ministers, has suddenly adopted a softer and more diplomatic stance on Europe.
An EU diplomat in London said this week: “There is clearly a welcome change of approach towards us taking place in your treasury.”
Two events signal how Brownian rage against Europe is being replaced by rapprochement. First there was his recent meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Mr Brown rarely makes much of his meetings with EU leaders. But this one, according to his aides, went swimmingly.
The second event came this week with a speech from Ed Balls, a treasury minister and Mr Brown’s right-hand man.Using language more natural to pro-Europeans in Mr Blair’s camp, Mr Balls said the UK must now be “pragmatic” and “fully engaged” in European affairs.
Why is this change of tone happening? In part it reflects how changes within the EU are making it easier these days for Mr Brown to engage with senior Europeans.
Now that the European constitution is dead, Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, believes EU governments should focus on pursuing economic reforms, not building institutional architecture. Mr Brown likes this kind of talk and according to Mr Barroso, the two men saw eye-to-eye at a recent meeting.
The real issue on Mr Brown’s mind, however, is the crisis that David Cameron, the new leader of the opposition Conservatives, is now in over Europe.
Mr Cameron is in many ways a challenging opponent for Mr Brown at the next general election. But Mr Brown regards his determination to take the Tories out of Europe’s main centre-right grouping the EPP as a fatal mistake. It is leaving the Tories castigated and isolated across Europe.
By building his own close relations with EU leaders, Mr Brown wants to highlight the impression of Mr Cameron as an isolated figure on the European stage.
This helps the ruling Labour party to depict the Tories at home as unreconstructed right-wingers. Mr Cameron’s isolation also makes it hard for him to meet core policy goals. For example, how can Mr Cameron vaunt his green credentials when he lacks international partners with whom to pursue the fight against greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr Brown’s rapprochement is a tactical ploy, of course. ?All this new-found interest in Europe is very welcome, even if it comes pretty late in the day,? laughs our EU diplomat.
But the chancellor’s tactic serves a serious political purpose. Leading figures in the French and German governments view Mr Brown with suspicion. But Mr Cameron is someone they cannot do business with at all.