Katherine Butler: Chance for PM to change broken record

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The Independent Online

Like one of Margaret Thatcher's pussy-bow blouses in royal blue, Gordon Brown's rhetoric on Europe is stuck in the 1980s. When he makes his first appearance as Prime Minister at an EU summit today, he may as well have a handbag dangling from the crook of his arm.

Listen to the language. He will "warn" and "tell" and "demand", and "draw lines in the sand". And, when his EU partners have wearily "conceded" defeat, handing him the "red lines" and "opt-outs" that they never wanted to deny him in the first place, he will return home, pull up the drawbridge and proclaim that Britain's national interest is safe.

No matter how much Europe changes: no matter how many Berlin Walls and Iron Curtains are swept away, no matter how far the European project evolves from the original federalist dream of 50 years ago to the 21st-century version – a trans-national enterprise, unique in the world, promoting democracy, stability and prosperity across 27 countries with more queuing up to join – British attitudes never seem to move on.

Ten years after Labour came to power, promising to put Britain at Europe's heart, fear of the Murdoch-owned, xenophobic press still holds corrosive sway. Hence, Brown's red herrings about red lines and a pointless debate about a treaty (a set of technicalities which will do nothing more than permit the enlarged EU to function) framed in the most defensive and dishonest of terms.

If Gordon Brown truly believes the EU is a battleground, then somebody needs to tell him that Britain has already won the war.

Nobody is trying to browbeat him into the euro. Instead, the liberal economic orthodoxy practised from Cork to Kraków is the one he has been preaching for years: flexible labour policies, open markets, free trade.

This government has sold Britain brilliantly to Europe. What it has not even attempted to do is to sell Europe to the British people. It is late, but it's not too late.

The EU is crying out for leadership. How refreshing, and how empowering, for both Britain and its European neighbours if Gordon Brown, on his first day at an EU council, were to announce a fresh start. Not only would he be distancing himself from the discredited Blair era, but Europe's hopes and aspirations could suddenly become an exciting prospect for young British voters, a welcome respite from the dreary old narrative of victory and defeat.

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