Blair and euro: prize is there for the taking

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Series Details Vol.7, No.36, 4.10.01, p9
Publication Date 04/10/2001
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Date: 04/10/01

By Dick Leonard

With less than three months to go before the introduction of euro notes and coins, the 12 participating countries are about to launch an intensive publicity campaign to prepare their citizens for the changeover.

The success of this campaign will depend not only on the smoothness of the transition to the new currency, but also its appeal to the still hesitant governments and people of Sweden, Denmark and the UK.

Until this week, the most chronic hesitater of all had been UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Nobody seriously doubts his desire to see his country adopt the euro, but the boldness which has characterised his response to the challenges of Kosovo and Afghanistan had been in sharp contrast to his dilatoriness over firing the starting gun for the British euro referendum.

During last June's election campaign, which the-then Tory leader William Hague attempted to turn into the "real referendum" on the euro, Blair gave every sign that once the election was out of the way his government would seize the moment to commit itself unequivocally in favour of British adoption of the euro.

To my certain knowledge, at least one distinguished journalist was personally briefed to this effect by a member of Blair's staff, and it was on the strength of this information that I confidently predicted in these columns (7-13 June) that he would finally take the plunge.

In the event - within a week or two of his sweeping electoral victory - he weakly deferred to the view of Chancellor Gordon Brown, that it was still premature to make a judgement on the five economic criteria which the government had erected as pre-conditions for a positive decision. Blair was still at pains to stress them when he raised the issue of the euro again in his speech at the Labour Party Conference on 2 October.

Some of his closest supporters have been telling him that the time for decision really has arrived, and that - in their belief - the prize is there for the taking. Their views are forcefully expressed in a new booklet, Winning the Euro Referendum (Foreign Policy Centre).

As the co-editor happens to be my son, Mark Leonard, I am perhaps not the best person to proclaim its merits: I will confine myself to saying that it makes a compelling case for bold action.

The starting point of all the 14 contributions is the current two-to-one negative majority shown by most opinion polls. That this can, and will, be reversed is the leitmotiv of the volume. Much of the argument is based on the findings of the British Election Survey, involving in-depth interviews with 4,800 voters, which was conducted under the auspices of the University of Essex.

In his own contribution, the survey's co-director, Professor Paul Whiteley, refers to the 'softness' of the majority, with relatively few voters holding strong views on the subject, and a very close correlation between being well informed and being in favour of the euro.

The implication is that a hard-fought referendum campaign, which greatly raised the average level of consciousness of the issues involved, could produce a substantial turn-around.

Whiteley already found some evidence of this in the general election campaign when the greater salience of the issue (largely due to Hague's misguided efforts) led to a significant swing away from opposition to the single currency.

Most of the authors evidently subscribe to the view argued by Robert Worcester, of the Mori poll, in an earlier FPC pamphlet, that the trump card of the pro-euro camp will be that their spokesmen (e.g. Blair) are much more respected and trusted than their opponents (e.g. Duncan Smith).

The massive swing round in the opinion polls in the six months leading up to the 1975 referendum on British EEC membership was generally attributed to this factor.

They do not, however, take it for granted that history will repeat itself, and believe that the pro-euro campaign will only win if it changes the focus of its arguments, in two specific directions. One is to make people much more aware of the consequences of not joining the euro.

The general belief of the public, the editors argue, is that this would merely preserve the status quo. Not at all, they retort. British companies and workers would no longer be operating on a level playing field, and would progressively suffer from cutting themselves off from the advantages which the single currency increasingly gives to their competitors.

The other point, powerfully urged by Chris Powell, the elder brother of Blair's chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, is that the pro-Europeans have hitherto made a fatal error in allowing the 'antis' to monopolise the patriotic appeal.

They must now argue strongly that it is not patriotic to put Britons at a disadvantage in relation to their continental counterparts and that it is only within a strong Europe that Britain will be able to achieve its full potential.

Powell's argument is reinforced in another recently published book, Made in Britain: The Patriotic Case for Europe and the Euro (Profile). Its author is Simon Buckby, director of the pro-euro pressure group, Britain in Europe.

The ball is now again firmly in Blair's court, and he realises it. In his speech to the Labour Party Conference he came closer than ever before to an unqualified commitment.

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