In a move that can be expected to generate cheers of praise and some sighs of relief in Brussels, Gordon Brown today gave a strongly worded defense of Britain’s place in Europe, signaling a shift in tone from an administration which has so far seemed to be avoiding any discussion about the EU.
In a speech on the global economy delivered to business leaders this morning, Brown promised a policy of “full engagement” with the European Union and said that if Britain were to “retreat to the sidelines” of Europe, as some members of the Conservative Party are demanding, it would jeopardize Britain’s trade, jobs and the very foundation of the British economy itself.
It is the first time Brown has strongly condemned domestic criticisms of Britain’s membership in the union, criticism which is very popular in the British press and among right-leaning politicians. Brown has never been perceived to be particularly Euro-friendly. As chancellor in 2005, Brown derided the federalist ambitions of the original constitution, saying that EU leaders must accept that people are more attached to "national values" than an "outdated" federalist ideal.
The change in tone comes after Brown’s rather ham-handed machinations around his signing of the EU reform treaty in Lisbon. Although every other European leader made it to the signing, Brown originally said he would be unable to attend due to ‘scheduling conflicts.’ After Brussels expressed its displeasure that Brown should deliver such a snub after the union had acquiesced on every exception the UK had asked for in the treaty, Brown changed his schedule so that he could arrive three hours late to the event, conveniently well after the signing ceremony (he signed it later by himself). It was widely assumed Brown was attempting to get out of being in any photos showing him standing next to continental leaders ’signing away Britain’, which would have dominated the UK’s Eurosceptic press. In the end, however, his decision pleased no one. He alienated Britain’s European partners by missing the signing and angered British Eurosceptics who said he should not have signed the treaty at all.
But with debate on the treaty about to begin in parliament, Brown has indicated a shift in strategy by coming out swinging. In the speech today, he accused the Conservative Party of putting Britain's economic future in jeopardy by planning to isolate the country from the EU, saying, “At this time of global economic uncertainty, we should not be throwing into question our future membership of the EU – risking trade, business and jobs. Indeed, I strongly believe that rather than retreating to the sidelines we must remain fully engaged in Europe so we can push forward the reforms that are essential for Europe's, and Britain's, economic future."
Brown pointed out that the EU is a key to the success of British business because it accounts for almost 60 percent of the nation’s trade, with 700,000 British firms having trading ties with Europe and 3.5 million British jobs depending on it.
The speech attempts to link Tory Euroscepticism with a nationalist protectionism and isolationism that would cripple Britain’s economy at a time of global economic uncertainty. Acknowledging that 2008 would be a “difficult year” for the world economy, Brown argued that Britain is well situated to whether the storm precisely because of its partnership with the larger European economy.
MPs will vote on the second reading of the Bill to ratify the treaty next Monday, ahead of at least a month of solid line-by-line debate. This week David Cameron was already backing off his earlier threats that even if the treaty is voted through parliament now as expected, a new Tory government could annul it in the future. In an interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr Show he seemed to implicitly acknowledge that such an act would be an unprecedented repudiation of an international treaty that would likely precipitate a complete renegotiation of Britain’s economic ties with Europe. The Tories are still demanding that the treaty ratification be put to a national referendum, but Brown has insisted this would be unnecessary and unprecedented. Ireland is the only country in the EU to be putting the treaty ratification to a popular vote. The UK has only held one referendum in its entire history, and that was a referendum on EU membership in the late 1970’s.
Cameron’s interview led one minister for Europe, Jim Murphy, to say Cameron’s Europe policy was in "complete confusion,” adding, "He doesn't want to explain his policy, no doubt because he recognises the Tory policy of fundamental renegotiation represents a new kind of economic instability and a real threat to British business and British prosperity."