"What is Gordon Brown up to?" That was the question being asked by other European Union leaders yesterday at their Brussels summit after the Prime Minister's bizarre "late, late show" at the signing ceremony for the new EU treaty in Lisbon.
Not only did Mr Brown get flak from Europhobes and sceptics and every newspaper in Britain for turning up three hours late, and only showing up at all because his planned absence caused a row. He also upset his fellow EU leaders, and made unintended waves all round Europe. "Brown snubbed his friends but ended up signing the treaty anyway," was the headline in Spain's El Pais paper.
Portugal, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, was particularly miffed. It did Mr Brown a favour by delaying a crucial vote on an EU directive giving more protection to agency workers last week. Britain opposes it and could have lost the vote. In return, the Portuguese understood that the Prime Minister would not "rain on their parade" at the ceremony. But he did just that and the Portuguese feel bruised.
They are not alone. When Mr Brown met Nicolas Sarkozy after becoming Prime Minister, he told the French President that he needed to play down the European issue in order to quell demands in Britain for a referendum on the treaty.M Sarkozy promised to do everything he could to help. That's the only way a 27-member club can work. The two men agreed a few areas in which France would assist Britain. "We're still waiting for something in return," one senior French official told me.
Does it matter? The Lisbon affair may only make a tiny ripple in the real world. Mr Brown is bemused by the media storm. Aides deny he was trying to toss a bone to the ravenous Eurosceptic press by missing the ceremony. There was a genuine diary clash, they say. Downing Street tried to move the date but the Liaison Committee was unmoved. It took a personal call from Mr Brown to the chairman Alan Williams to bring the session forward an hour to 9am to so he could get to Lisbon at all.
Yet symbols are important. The affair matters because it has damaged Mr Brown's relations with other EU states. Repair work is required in the British national interest, which the Prime Minister says is his guiding star on foreign policy.
Mr Brown doesn't enjoy EU meetings. One participant in Brussels yesterday said he had "a face like thunder". He kept his distance while Chancellor and he doesn't seem to have changed. Small countries who can be useful allies say they haven't been wooed by him yet.
Tony Blair was good at EU glad-handing and back-slapping not for its own sake but because it maximised Britain's influence. His networking paid dividends, keeping Britain at the top table even though it remained outside the euro.
The hyperactive M. Sarkozy is happy to fill the vacuum left by Mr Blair's departure. European Commission officials can't get him off the phone. In contrast, yesterday's visit to Brussels was Mr Brown's first in six months as Prime Minister. Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, had to go to Downing Street to get an audience. Brussels insiders are perplexed. "How can it be in Britain's interests to have an empty chair?" one asked.
There is growing criticism of the No 10 machine. Ministers complain there is no one there who can tell Mr Brown when he's wrong or head off disasters like Lisbon before it's too late. They claim they can't get decisions on policies or the timing of announcements because his aides are not authorised to say what "Gordon wants" sometimes because the only person who knows what he wants is ... Gordon.
Allies dismiss the idea that Mr Brown is out on a limb in Europe, insisting that Britain was at the heart of yesterday's debate on globalisation and that Europe is going Britain's way. Talk of isolationism is premature and there is time for Mr Brown to prevent it. But the presentational disaster in Lisbon should be a warning shot to the Prime Minister.
Mr Blair saw the EU as "a superpower, not a superstate". Other EU leaders suspect Mr Brown regards it as a regional power with limited clout on the world stage. Love or hate the EU, the Prime Minister doesn't have anywhere else to go. He is also distancing himself from Washington, but the idea that Britain can punch hard in the world in splendid isolation is a joke. The danger in Mr Brown's current approach is that he will fall between two stools.
Read Andrew Grice online at independent.co.uk/todayinpoliticsReuse content