Leading article: A valuable declaration of intent from Brussels

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The Independent Online

This week's European Union summit in Brussels ought to be studied by our domestic political classes. While our politicians are tying themselves up in knots on the parochial question of whether there ought to be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union itself is busy getting to grips with the serious challenges that will shape the 21st century, both for our continent and the wider world.

One of the topics under discussion in Brussels is EU energy policy. The presidents and prime ministers of member states are searching for an agreement on how to proceed with the liberalisation of the EU's energy market. This is an agenda very much in Britain's national interest since UK energy consumers often find themselves burdened with higher bills thanks to the manner in which the restricted European market functions.

European leaders are also grappling with the fall-out of the global credit crisis and discussing how to extract greater transparency from financial institutions. Under discussion is a proposal that the international financial industry should be held accountable for the present turmoil in credit markets (on account of its indulgence in reckless lending) and that European regulators must be ready to intervene if banks and credit rating agencies fail to clean up their act.

But the predominant theme of this summit is undoubtedly climate change. Last year, member states committed themselves to cutting greenhouse emissions by at least 20 per cent by 2020 and to raising the use of renewable sources to 20 per cent of overall energy use by that date. This time around, moves are likely to be made to tighten up the European Emissions Trading System by requiring companies to bid for pollution allowances, rather than being given allocations for free.

Also under discussion at this meeting are British suggestions of EU tax breaks for eco-friendly consumer goods. There is to be a promise of financial aid for environmentally sustainable economic growth in emerging nations such as India, Brazil and China. And the most hard hitting proposal on the table is a plan to threaten trade sanctions against other nations (such as the United States) if they fail to join a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

The lead the EU has taken on climate change shows that it is thinking on an appropriately global scale about the problem. Council members were given a sobering report from the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, about the likely consequences for our continent from runaway climate change. One of the most worrying possibilities is the creation of hundreds of thousands of climate change refugees from Africa and the Middle East as agriculture begins to fail in those regions. Europe would surely be the main destination for these dispossessed masses.

But it is not just this meeting's seriousness of purpose that should impress our own MPs, it is the framework for action afforded by the EU. Climate change; energy market liberalisation; financial regulation: these are all challenges that no single nation can meet on its own. They can be adequately addressed only through international co-operation. That is where forums such as the EU Council come into their own.

Of course, there is no guarantee of agreement in such summits. Some member states are pushing for special protection from emission-cutting legislation for heavy industries such as steel, aluminium and cement. And ominously, Chancellor Merkel is promising to "stand up" for Germany's car manufacturing industry. There will inevitably be horse-trading and compromise. But does anyone seriously believe that Britain would be better off outside the negotiating room?