Leading article: A pointless gesture that pleases no one


Gordon Brown's absence from the official signing of the new European Union treaty today promises to be an embarrassment. Every other EU leader plans to be present at the Jerónimos monastery in Lisbon. Mr Brown should be there, too. The Prime Minister has only himself to blame for this debacle.

Downing Street's citing of a clash with a Commons committee meeting is a red herring. The truth is that Mr Brown and his advisers got themselves in a muddle trying to appease Britain's anti-European press, which has been waging a campaign for a referendum on the treaty. Mr Brown thought it would be clever to miss the ceremony so as not to be photographed in the act of signing the document.

This is cowardly and cynical. It is also spectacularly pointless. The anti-European newspapers, having got wind of what Mr Brown is up to, have merely been provoked further. They are now accusing him of seeking to shirk his responsibilities. The Prime Minister has ended up pleasing no one. And his absence from the ceremony has become far more contentious than if he had actually turned up and signed the treaty.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this affair is that it once again distracts attention from the significance of what is actually in the document. Some have pointed out that the Union has managed to function smoothly enough since the rejection of the ill-fated EU Constitution by France and the Netherlands in 2005. That may be true, but this calm would never have lasted. EU enlargement would eventually have placed the existing governing structures under unbearable strain. Two inevitable conflict points would have been the voting rights of member states and the national allocation of posts on the European Commission.

The new arrangements will defuse those two problems and also help to forge a more streamlined and efficient Europe through the creation of a permanent EU President and "foreign minister". And on the economic side, Britain has nothing to complain about. The treaty envisages a competitive and flexible European economy. Indeed, it is a curious fact that those who castigate the treaty usually fail to acknowledge the extent to which its contents are inspired by a traditional British conception of the EU.

We must hope that, after today's signing, we will hear no more about the Government's "red lines". This sort of language reflects the poisonous idea that the EU is some sort of advancing army intent on stealing British sovereignty and dismantling our traditions. Thanks to the Government's abject failure to argue the positive case for further integration and co-operation, the terms of the debate in Britain are hopelessly skewed against the EU.

An intelligent national debate on the issue of Europe is long overdue. Since no serious figures in the House of Commons advocate Britain's withdrawal from the EU, this should be over how the EU's institutions can be made to operate more effectively, and what Europe ought to be attempting to achieve in the wider world.

There is hardly a shortage of challenges facing the bloc. A major crisis seems poised to erupt on its doorstep over Kosovo's planned declaration of independence from Serbia. Meanwhile, the global strategic position of the EU is in flux. The recent fractious EU-Africa summit served to emphasise just how rapidly China's influence in Africa is replacing that of Europe's. Meanwhile, internally, the EU needs to work a lot harder if it is to meet its targets of cutting carbon emissions and building up the renewable energy sector.

Such concerns should be at the centre of our national discussion about Europe. How ridiculous it is that our leaders are instead clashing over a missed photo-call.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'