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The UK's Euro Battle


Euro bank notes

Britain's mood about the euro is mysterious, complex and for politicians, potentially dangerous.

This country does not love either European political integration or the currency that now symbolises it.

But with a weary, almost defeated, sigh it thinks the euro will arrive here anyway.

Pro-euro ministers make a lot of the physical arrival of euro notes and coins, followed by that sinister-sounding character, 'Euro Creep'.

With millions of Britons holidaying and working on the continent, travelling there and back with casual ease, it is inevitable that the new currency will become part of everyday life for many - particularly the better-off and therefore the more articulate.

British tourists may be the first to get used to the currency.

But it will not be entirely an 'over there' phenomenon. It will quickly creep into shops here too.

Retailers, including those led by anti-euro campaigners such as Dixons, will accept euros because the alternative would be a loss of business.

There will be a pronounced geographical tilt, too.

London, Kent and other parts of the English south east, already heavily visited by other Europeans, will find more euros arriving more quickly than Scotland, Wales or the north of England.

But Northern Ireland, sharing its land border with euroland, may find the most dramatic impact.

Propaganda job

Anyone with a sense of political history will find this piquant.

It was the Tories under John Major's chancellorship who toyed with the idea of a European parallel currency, circulating alongside national currencies, as a less-intrusive alternative to the euro.

Now Labour ministers hope euro-creep will do much of their propaganda job for them.

The truth is it will do some, but not all.

The latest polling by ICM for The Guardian found that a substantial majority - 58% to 31% - would still vote 'no' to Britain joining the euro if they were asked now.

Public opinion shifting

That is a narrower anti-euro vote than a month ago, and a lot less than a year ago, when 71% were against joining and only 18% were in favour.

Tony Blair has been widely accused of excessive timidity in delaying the real political argument over the euro.

But look at those shifts in public opinion.

Even minus a bold political campaign by the Government, his delaying tactics are starting to look wily, if hardly heroic.

Labour announced its five economic tests shortly after the 1997 election.

Their guardian then and now is the chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Hefty amount of hunch

Labour's position was that there was no political or constitutional barrier to joining; but the five tests must be met.

Mr Brown, of course, is less enthusiastic about the new currency than is the Prime Minister and his tests are not as scientific as they may seem.

They include a hefty amount of hunch.

So the chancellor wields enormous personal power over the timing of the referendum. Yet Mr Blair has promised that the tests will be applied by half way through this parliament; so neither of them can delay indefinitely.

What we are seeing now, as the euro arrives, is a steady push by pro-euro ministers to create a climate of expectation which makes it ever harder for Mr Brown to block his colleague's desire for a referendum.

Euro isn't inevitable

The Tories, more unitedly hostile to the single currency than ever before, now need above all to shift a growing public sense that the euro is somehow inevitable.

That same ICM poll showed a dramatic change in the number of people who thought Britain would be in the eurozone within a decade - up from 31% a year ago to double that, 62%, now.

If Labour wants to push this to a real vote in the coming year, or more likely in spring 2003, it has to answer the constitutional fears of the millions who fear that the euro means EU-wide taxation and the effective end of the nation state.

That argument is wide open and arouses intense passions, perhaps deeper passions than any other issue in public life.

Because of that, the euro is not inevitable.

In the end, despite the move in opinion, it will be accepted or rejected because one side loses and the other wins a profound national argument about who we are and where our future lies.

Adapted from bbc.co.uk: Wednesday, 19 December 2001



E-mail Steve Margetts