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British PM hopes EU treaty signing shifts focus

world Updated: Dec 13, 2007 09:50 IST

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Thursday he hoped the imminent signing of the new European Union treaty would shift the bloc's focus away from an "institutional debate".

His comments come hours before he is set to jet off to Lisbon to sign the document, though he will miss the official signing as he has a long-standing appointment with a key parliamentary committee.

Brown told The Times that he hoped the public would say that "for the foreseeable future that the focus of Europe is now on economics, security, trade, economic reform, climate change and not on institutional debate."

"The global agenda would then force Europe to look at internal economic reform, the liberalisation of utilities, finance, energies in a consistent way so you can genuinely talk about open markets and trading."

Brown has faced accusations that he has run scared from Europe, after initial speculation suggested he would miss the signing entirely because of the meeting with the House of Commons Liaison Committee on Thursday morning.

His spokesman attempted to combat those allegations by saying the prime minister would fly to Portugal immediately after the hearing, and sign the treaty later in the day.

The prime minister also tried to answer those accusations in his interview with The Times, telling the paper that suggestions he was marginalised in Brussels were "not true".

"I think you'll find on the debate about global Europe, we are leading the way."

The new EU treaty has been contentious in Britain with critics arguing that it is virtually an exact replica of the EU constitution, which was torpedoed in 2005 by French and Dutch voters.

Eurosceptics have called on Brown to put the document to a referendum, but he has argued that parliamentary approval is sufficient because Britain has secured opt-outs on key issues, thereby protecting its sovereignty.

His predecessor Tony Blair promised a referendum on the constitution in Labour's 2005 general election manifesto.