This is no way to handle the crucial business of our nation's relationship with Europe

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When he stands up to deliver his eighth pre-Budget report in the Commons today, the Chancellor is confidently expected to compare Britain's economic performance favourably with that of our European partners. And he is justified in doing so. Britain's superior growth rates, our low unemployment, the dynamism of our economy generally, are achievements of which he - and the country - can be proud.

When he stands up to deliver his eighth pre-Budget report in the Commons today, the Chancellor is confidently expected to compare Britain's economic performance favourably with that of our European partners. And he is justified in doing so. Britain's superior growth rates, our low unemployment, the dynamism of our economy generally, are achievements of which he - and the country - can be proud.

Yet, whenever Gordon Brown boasts of Britain's economic strength, he often strikes an uncomfortably Eurosceptic note. It is as though he believes that Britain has to be in permanent competition with our near-neighbours and that our economies cannot flourish together. Rarely has this train of thought been expressed more clearly than in his speech earlier this week to the Political Studies Association, when his leitmotif was "Britishness". The theme of his pre-Budget report, he told his audience, would be that "the next decade can be a British decade". He would set out a "patriotic vision of Britain's future as a country of ambition and aspiration", a place that would be "best" at pretty much everything.

Mr Brown insists that he is a pro-European. In the same speech, he was careful to define "Britishness" as being "outward-looking, internationalist and pro-European". Somehow, though, such nods towards Europe come across as grudging. And the more grudging the Chancellor seems to be about Europe, the more worried the pro-Europeans inside and outside the Cabinet become. Their fear is that, for the umpteenth time, the European project will be put on ice so far as Britain is concerned and that a government which started out with enthusiastic statements of commitment to Europe, a government which pro-Europeans supported in part, at least, because of its European policy, will end up forsaking the cause.

This is why the pro-Europeans, with Peter Mandelson in the lead, have now taken up the cudgels in support of a full role for Britain in Europe. With a general election in the offing here and referendums looming across Europe, they understand that Mr Brown's perceived Euroscepticism could not only reduce the prospects of a "Yes" vote in the referendum, but reduce British influence at the EU top table.

Effectively reopening Labour's divisions over Europe, Mr Mandelson has urged the Chancellor to avoid "exaggerated gloating" over Britain's economic performance. He also reminded him, rightly, that not a few EU countries outperform Britain in some areas, such as competitiveness, employment and social welfare. There followed a slanging match which revived all the personal and political hostilities that have seethed between the two men since Mr Mandelson backed Mr Blair rather than Mr Brown for the Labour leadership.

If, in his speech today, the Chancellor once again pointedly defines our successes in terms of Europe's failures, this will not only depress pro-Europeans further. It is bound also to be seen as a very deliberate move to perpetuate the feud - a feud that has now assumed a highly personal edge. What we are witnessing is a battle, conducted largely in code, between two individuals with long-standing ambitions that have hitherto been frustrated - though for very different reasons. It is only partly a battle to influence the party and convince the Prime Minister. It is also a struggle for power and the post-Blair succession that threatens to be translated on to the European stage - if it has not been already.

This is no way for senior politicians to behave. Still less is it the way the serious business of this country's relationship to Europe should be debated. It personalises what should be political. It reduces questions of high principle to petty point-scoring. It sows despair among convinced pro-Europeans in Britain, and it deepens European doubts about whether Britain will ever be a truly committed member of the European Union. If Mr Brown really is the pro-European he insists he is, he must embark on the task of building the pro-European consensus he says he wants. He has already left it perilously late.

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