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No longer the odd man out? Will Gordon Brown bind Britain more closely to Europe?

Article by Dick Leonard

October 20, 2008

Hitherto seen as at least mildly euro-sceptic and barely interested in the doings of Brussels, the British Prime Minister created an entirely different impression during last week’s meeting of the European Council. He arrived eight hours early, formidably well informed and deeply committed to making a success of the ‘summit’.

He made himself freely available to the press and was all smiles and self-deprecation to every one he met. When he left some 36 hours later, he was almost universally seen as a ‘saviour’ by the large assemblage of politicians, diplomats and European officials gathered in the Belgian capital, with the apparent exception of some of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s entourage, who resented the fact that he had stolen the limelight from their chief.

By his performance, Brown has created a huge amount of goodwill for himself and his country. The question now is whether this will eventually be dissipated, or whether it will mark the beginning of the end of the period in which Britain has been seen as a ‘semi-detached’ member of the Union, more interested in opting out of successive European initiatives rather than playing a full part in their development.

Some useful suggestions on how Britain could play a more positive role have just been made by a high level working party convened by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, popularly known as Chatham House. Presided over by Sir Stephen Wall, a former British Permanent Representative to the EU, its report is entitled A British Agenda for Europe.

The authors’ rather bland conclusion is that “the correct approach is to use this moment to be creative and proactive, both for reasons of British self-interest and to help produce approaches to the EU’s problems that will suit all members of the EU”. They list five areas where a sronger British participation in EU policies would be both in the national and the general European interest.

They urge the greater development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, including the creation of a European External Action Service. The pursuit of a more active enlargement policy, including towards Ukraine, Georgia “and other countries of the Caucasus” and greater British participation in the area of justice and home affairs (JHA).

Without specifically arguing for British adoption of the euro, the group strongly implies that it would be in the long-term British interest, and urges the British government to keep the decision “under regular and public review”. Finally, they urge the creation of an EU-wide energy market and the establishment of a European Energy Agency.

These are fairly modest proposals, and it is very much to be hoped that they will in fact be actively pursued by Gordon Brown and his government. At least as important, however, is to persuade the Conservative opposition to take a more positive approach –no easy task. Despite the recovery of Brown’s reputation, most observers still regard them as the favorites to win the next British general election, due at the latest by June 2010.

Although David Cameron has been largely successful in weaning his party away from its more reactionary policies, Europe has been a notable exception. He has failed to give a lead, and in fact has shown himself – if anything – as even more euro-sceptic than his three predecessors – Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague.

Under his leadership, the party has become more and more euro-phobic, and the formerly strong pro-European faction, led by Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke and Chris Patten, has all but disappeared.

Cameron has recently established regular contacts with other Centre-right European leaders, including Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. Unless they can talk some sense into him, the next British general election could well provoke a major crisis in Anglo-EU relations, whatever progress is made under the new-born leadership of Gordon Brown.

Dick Leonard is the author of ‘The Economist Guide to the European Union’.

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