Leading article: At last, Mr Brown looks to the future

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It appeared for a while that Gordon Brown had lost his nerve on Europe. In the negotiations on the Lisbon treaty he seemed to be concerned only with red lines and opt-outs. Then there was the debacle of his turning up to sign the document three hours late, when all Europe's other leaders had departed. The Prime Minister seemed gripped by frightened equivocation designed to pander to Eurosceptic newspapers and draw the sting of the Conservatives' campaign to secure a referendum on the treaty.

Yesterday he put all that behind him with a clear statement of his vision of Britain's place in a Europe which can build international financial stability, remove regulatory restrictions on the world economy, promote free trade, help the world's poorest nations and take a lead on climate change. It was a vision rooted in enlightened self-interest. Almost 60 per cent of British trade is with Europe. More than three million British jobs in 700,000 British firms depend on it. And the future offers more – access to a market of 500 million people.

It was a bold vision of the kind the British public might have expected of a man who once enjoyed a reputation for strategic far-sightedness. But then he was blown off course by a series of comparatively trivial political storms which began with the election that never was and continue today with the saga of Peter Hain's deputy leadership campaign expenses.

There was, of course, politics in the timing of yesterday's speech. The Lisbon treaty will be presented to the Commons next Monday. Over the next three months, MPs will indulge in exhausting line-by-line examination of the text. The Prime Minister faces guerrilla opposition from the Tories and from maverick Labour backbenchers, who will try to unpick the detail and continue to call for a pointless referendum on the treaty. He will have to weather that, as indeed he should.

The Conservative position on Europe is as divided and contradictory as ever. The shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has talked of a retrospective referendum even if the treaty has already been ratified by Parliament. David Cameron hints that might be going too far but blusters about "not letting matters rest" on the transfer of powers from Whitehall to Brussels. The Tories continue to send out the disingenuous subliminal message that Britain should somehow pull out of Europe while knowing that the notion is utterly unrealistic since it would jeopardise trade, business and jobs.

It was Churchill who warned of spending too much time trying to build a present in the image of the past and missing out on the great challenges of the future. Europe offers Britain its best chance of withstanding the financial turbulence which is buffeting the global economy. It offers us our most effective voice in a world being shaped by, on the one hand, the military and economic might of the United States, and on the other, the burgeoning clout of the emerging world. Things are changing fast out there. China and India, which once competed only on low-cost manufacturing, are each year now turning out nearly two million more graduates than all Europe put together.

Europe is the most efficient vehicle for us to take a world lead on cutting carbon emissions, promoting renewable energy and developing new environmental technologies. It is the best hope for fighting protectionism and promoting the Doha trade talks, which can help the world's poorest billion people.

As globalisation proceeds apace, Europe will be more important to the future of Britain than ever. Mr Brown knows that. Now he has to deliver on his fine words, and persuade Messrs Sarkozy, Merkel, Prodi and the rest to do the same.

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