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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.