Gordon Brown on Friday denied he was “on the back foot” over Europe as he insisted the European Union agenda was moving on from institutional wrangling to a more Anglo-Saxon programme of adapting the bloc to succeed in an era of globalisation.
The prime minister’s late arrival at an EU treaty signing in Lisbon on Thursday was still reverberating around an EU summit in Brussels on Friday. It was widely seen as a snub, prompting Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner, to claim Mr Brown had downgraded Europe as a priority.
“In politics you don’t win an argument by putting yourself on the back foot,” Mr Mandelson told the BBC’s Daily Politics show. Referring to Mr Brown’s commitment to Europe, he added: “No doubt it needs to assume a higher priority.”
Mr Brown stressed the importance he attached to Europe, claiming he was “excited” about an agenda launched at Friday’s summit in Brussels, including economic reform, transparency in the financial markets and action on climate change.
He believes the new EU reform treaty – which updates the union’s institutions – means Europe has the building blocks to deliver reforms and that further institutional tinkering will not be needed for “the foreseeable future”.
Mr Brown pointed out that the summit communiqué said the new EU treaty would provide a “lasting” framework for the EU, yet the creation of a “circle of reflection” to consider Europe’s long-term future was confirmation that the union was still a work in progress.
The prime minister insisted that the reflection group would not consider institutions or the future boundaries of Europe and was for long-term thinking.
But Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, was briefing journalists next door that the group would “keep alive the dream of Europe” – the kind of lofty rhetoric that arouses the fears of Britain’s Eurosceptic media.
Challenged by journalists on whether he actually enjoyed coming to Brussels, Mr Brown smiled and said he was “excited” that Europe was moving on to a reform agenda and away from endless treaty revisions.
Mr Brown’s “will he, won’t he” approach to signing the EU treaty in Lisbon has exposed differences inside the British government, with the Foreign Office eager for the prime minister to be more involved in the networking elements of his job.
Mr Brown’s approach is straightforward. He sees the EU primarily as an economic project, not a social club. He is genuinely amazed that the other 26 European leaders who attended the Lisbon signing ceremony should care about his late arrival.
“What’s the issue?” said Mr Brown’s exasperated spokesman on Friday. Questioned on why the prime minister was not wearing a badge like the other leaders at the Brussels summit and appeared again to be “the odd man out”, the spokesman said: “Trivial matters are being taken to absurd extremes.”
Mr Brown’s distaste for EU extravaganzas – such as the treaty signing in a Lisbon monastery – is palpable. When he completed negotiations on the treaty in Lisbon in October, the prime minister turned down the offer of champagne. On Thursday, to Europe-wide bafflement and consternation, he turned up three hours late to sign the text.
While Mr Brown has a working relationship with Mr Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, British diplomats complain that he does not spend enough time wooing the likes of José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, or the leaders of smaller countries, including liberal allies in northern and eastern Europe.
Get alerts on Western Europe when a new story is published