Brown keeps distance on Europe by refusing to back EU symbols

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown will keep his distance from a majority of European Union countries today by refusing to sign a declaration of support for the EU's flag, anthem and single currency.

Sixteen of the EU's 27 members will issue a statement saying that these symbols will "continue to express the sense of community of the people in the EU and their allegiance to it". It also backs the EU's motto "united in diversity" and the annual Europe Day on 9 May to celebrate the Union.

Although the EU flag with its 12 stars will continue to be flown from public buildings in Britain, Mr Brown regards the declaration as a distraction. He wants the EU to focus on big issues like the global economy and climate change rather than indulge in gestures and "navel-gazing".

His decision not to join 16 nations in signing the statement will be seen as another attempt to reassure British voters and Eurosceptic newspapers that he opposes further EU integration.

Mr Brown has upset pro-Europeans and some fellow EU leaders because he will miss the signing ceremony for the new EU treaty in Lisbon today. Instead, he will answer questions from senior MPs before flying to Lisbon, arriving after the "family photograph" of EU leaders and in the middle of their working lunch.

The Prime Minister, who will be the only EU leader absent from the ceremony, will sign the treaty on his own in the same room as the other leaders and will be filmed doing so.

EU sources are accusing him of gesture politics and pandering to British Eurosceptics, who in turn have accused him of trying to hide his support for the treaty. "He has upset everyone without achieving anything," said one European Commission insider. EU diplomats described Mr Brown as distant and not engaged in Europe, unlike his predecessor Tony Blair.

The Prime Minister is reluctant to back the symbolic statement because the flag and anthem were included in the draft EU constitution scuppered by "No" votes in referendums in France and The Netherlands two years ago.

Downing Street said: "We think the focus should not be about institutional matters which have preoccupied much of Europe's time in recent years, but on issues that matter to real people and where Europe can make a real difference to its businesses and individuals.

"We want to see the focus on how Europe responds to globalisation, deals with climate change, foreign policy challenges and not enter into a lengthy discussion about flags and anthems."

Mr Brown will renew his call for a 10-year moratorium on further changes to the way the EU works when the EU leaders move on to Brussels for a summit tomorrow. He hopes that globalisation, Kosovo and Iran will top the agenda.

In the Commons, David Cameron mocked his indecision over whether to attend the Lisbon ceremony.

William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "Gordon Brown has even managed to turn something as simple as signing the EU treaty into a national embarrassment. What will other EU leaders think of a Prime Minister who dithers for a week about whether he dares to be photographed putting pen to paper?"

Read Andrew Grice online at independent.co.uk/todayinpolitics

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