Steve Richards: Why is Gordon Brown hectoring us all about Europe and the need for change?

He delivers a familiar message: I am pro-European so long as Europe moves in our direction
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The Independent Online

His latest cause is the economic future of the European Union. If the other finance ministers in Europe had any doubts about where Brown stood on this subject they have no excuses now. Some of them are flying out for a trip to China. The Chancellor has written enough material to keep them occupied for the entire plane journey.

His peg is what he calls a "make-or-break" summit on economic and social reform to be chaired by Britain later this month. The message is broadly familiar. China and India are storming ahead. European growth is sluggish. As a matter of urgency Brown calls for reforms in labour and capital markets closer to the Anglo-American model. When Brown is compelled to write a pamphlet something is up. The last time he did so was during his tempestuous battles with Tony Blair over the introduction of foundation hospitals. He wrote a brilliant essay on the benefits and limits of markets and in doing so placed a dagger in the heart of foundation hospitals without most in the media noticing.

His latest venture is less controversial and therefore on the surface more baffling. Why is there a need for such a pamphlet now? Mr Blair delivered a similar message when he addressed the European Parliament in the summer. Newspapers from countries in the European Union have made the same case, especially since the "no" votes in the referendums on the European Constitution. In different ways other European leaders have expressed similar views. To some extent Brown is preaching to the converted even in Europe.

In 1998 Gerhard Schröder signed up to a document with Blair that was so liberal in its economic ambitions it makes Brown's pamphlet seem Soviet-like in its statist ambitions. Angela Merkel's attachment to liberal economics extended to a pre-election interest in a flat tax. Even Jacques Chirac has spoken of the need for change. Silvio Berlusconi would probably want more change than the British Government if he was in a position to deliver it. But as Brown knows none of them are in such a position. For different reasons Germany, France and Italy are almost leaderless. Not surprisingly weak governments keep a wary eye on voters, most of whom reject the harsh messages in Brown's pamphlet.

The insecure electorates do so with good cause. If any of them had come to London this week to enjoy Brown's economic miracle they would have discovered that parts of the Underground were closed during the rush hour, leaving thousands stranded. More widely it is British patients who head for French hospitals and not the other way around. In Continental cities the bars can stay open all night. In British cities the police await fearfully the consequences of all-night drinking, already unable to contain the violence on Friday and Saturday nights.

A degree of humility, a hint of self-deprecation, would have helped Brown's message. Britain has much to learn from other EU countries, as they have from some of the reforms initiated in Britain. If Brown were embarking on a diplomatic mission in advance of Britain's make-or-break summit his tone was misplaced. Stuck in the Treasury Brown has had little cause, inclination or opportunity to test his diplomatic skills. To take the biggest test of all he has never met President Bush. If Brown is to be Prime Minister he will have to discover quickly the art of making friends on the European stage as well as telling them what to do.

In the context of Britain's presidency Brown speaks with a loud voice to countries with virtually no voice at all. He describes the forthcoming summit as make or break aware that most leaders are not in a powerful enough position to "make" it even if they were inclined to do so. Brown is a close reader of developments in Europe. He must know this to be the case.

Therefore his torrent of words cannot be aimed solely at the tentative coalition in Germany and the weak leaders of France and Italy. He must be reiterating his outlook on Europe partly with domestic audiences in mind. When he is Prime Minister, Brown wants a progressive consensus, a coalition of support for ill-defined domestic reforms. This is not the only consensus he hopes to create. Brown also searches for new common ground between the British political parties on Europe. If he succeeds it would conveniently take the sting out of the issue when Rupert Murdoch and others decide which leader to endorse at the next election. After all, his priorities as outlined in the pamphlet are those that many Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party could sign up to.

At the same time Brown stresses that he is a pro-European, reassuring the disparate Europhiles across the political spectrum. Broadly he delivers a familiar message from Britain: I am pro-European as long as Europe moves in our direction. Even the most rabid Eurosceptics could raise a glass to that.

Or could they? The current Conservative leadership contest has exposed a continued irrational obsession with Europe, at least in the parliamentary party. The failure of Ken Clarke to make more progress is explained by his association with Europe rather than concerns of Tory MPs about his age. Clarke made the only formidable speech in Blackpool last week, delivered with charismatic gusto. Ever since anti-European MPs have been conspiring to prevent him making headway in next week's ballots. This is madness.

Clarke has put his hands up. He has surrendered over Europe. He is placed firmly on the agenda mapped out by Brown. The Eurosceptics have won. But they do not see it like that. There are more mythical monsters in Brussels that must be slain. This is their sole political purpose. Those who go out of their way to kill off Clarke will never make common cause over Europe with Brown.

Britain's presidency of the EU began in July in a state of crisis. Perversely Europe's crisis was billed as Britain's opportunity. The British Government had supported the constitution that had brought about the crisis. In December Britain will take a bow and the EU will still be in a critical state and lacking a clear sense of direction.

A six-month presidency was never in itself going to revive the fortunes of a demoralised institution, but less lecturing and more engagement from a country struggling to adapt to lower than expected economic growth would have helped.

Instead Brown hectors fruitlessly. Most of Europe and Britain's Conservative Party are in no position to respond in the ways he would wish.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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