It is time for Mr Blair to spell out the benefits of Europe

The Prime Minister cannot, and should not, have to make the case for joining the euro on his own
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The Independent Culture
WHEN JACQUES Santer, the unlamented past president of the European Commission, chose the period of the 1997 British general election campaign to unleash an abusive attack on Eurosceptics, it was about as helpful to Labour as if Saddam Hussein had made a speech praising its defence policy. There was evidence that it hardened Eurosceptic opinion against Labour among voters who had been contemplating desertion of the Conservative party. Hardly surprisingly, in the British political debate on Europe it is a given that interventions by foreigners in general, and EU Commissioners in particular, are invariably unhelpful to the anti-xenophobic cause.

On the face of it, the speech in the City last night by Yves-Thibault de Silguy, the acting EU Commissioner for monetary affairs, falls precisely into that category by warning that Britain could be confined to the slow lane of a two-speed Europe by delaying entry into EMU. And yet De Silguy's speech may not be quite as counterproductive to the European cause as it looks at first sight.

For one thing, the speech was soberly and closely argued. Appropriately, given his audience, De Silguy laid heavy emphasis on the central anomaly that interest rate decisions taken by the European Central Bank have an immediate effect on the British economy, but that the Governor of the Bank of England has no influence whatever on how they are made, despite the pre-eminent role of the City in Europe's financial markets. For another, the timing is utterly different from that of Santer. The mid-term elections are over; the issue is not as neuralgic as it might have been six weeks ago. More importantly, Tony Blair goes to the London School of Economics today to make a speech devoted to the subject of Britain's place of Europe. Underlining that there is a case to answer, the Commissioner's speech is less of a threat than an opportunity.

The Prime Minister should take it. He will, in the speech, certainly disappoint those who want him to change the Government's policy and set a date for EMU entry. He may not dwell all that heavily on the euro as such. But pro-Europeans shouldn't complain about that. There is not much point in basing a large part of an eventual argument in favour of the euro on the dangers of being left behind in Europe, unless you have reminded the voters of the advantages of being in Europe in the first place.

The timing could hardly be better to do just that. Post-Kosovo, it isn't exactly hard to dispel the idea that British patriotism, or international leadership by the UK, is somehow in conflict with good relations with its European partners. Another false dichotomy which Mr Blair would do well to dispel today is between Atlanticism and Europeanism. The bridge that Britain provided between Washington and the European capitals during the conflict could hardly be a better illustration of exactly that.

But he needs to do a little more than this. Without changing the policy, he needs at least to remind the electors why the British Government is in principle in favour of EMU. The reason is simple. The line that "we will join when the economic conditions are right" is only a way of genuinely (and desirably) keeping your options open on timing if public opinion is as open-minded as you are, or, at least, persuadable in a referendum. And all the signs, not least from the European elections, are that public opinion is, if anything, hardening against the single currency, as the purveyors of focus groups keep rather gloomily reminding him. It is time to start the process of conditioning public opinion so his options genuinely are open in the next parliament. At the very least he needs to provide a text by which the soon-to-be-reshaped Cabinet can stand.

For he cannot, and should not, have to make the case on his own. Among those who hold the chief offices of state, Jack Straw is a long-time sceptic, who could not reliably be expected to lead a pro-euro charge. And although Gordon Brown, arguably the Cabinet's most powerful pro-European, is assumed to be as much in favour as ever, he has zealously argued against any moves that could threaten the settlement under which the issue is left dormant for the duration of this Parliament.

Whatever the truth of suspicions in some quarters that Mr Brown's allies have been behind newspaper stories suggesting that entry should be postponed until 2003 or 2004, the Treasury has been adamant within Whitehall that it is not trying to change policy - which still holds open the possibility of a referendum well before that. But, however good his reasons, the Chancellor is currently - at least so far - something of a sleeping giant in the argument for the single currency.

Curiously, there is a potential advocate in Robin Cook, once one of Labour's most active Eurosceptics. Only partly because of his contact with Britain's European allies, which reached a new high point during the war in Kosovo, he is something of a convert to the cause of the euro.

In fact his position is not as inconsistent as it seems; he publicly took the view from before the election that whatever the deficiencies of the EMU project, once it was operating, the pressures for Britain not to be left out might well prove irresistible. He is now said to be highly conscious that, while neither the UK's diplomatic influence nor UK inward investment in Britain are under threat at present, they might become so very rapidly if Britain were perceived to be contemplating staying out, or indefinitely delaying entry.

But elsewhere, a largely deafening silence. Which is all the odder if you consider the case of Peter Mandelson. Among the more self-serving strategies open to Mr Mandelson after his resignation was to lie low on the controversial question of Europe. He would thus avoid provoking the Eurosceptic newspapers, including the supposedly all-powerful Sun, which might otherwise be tempted to call for his return to rescue the Government from some real or imagined crisis. Instead, to his credit, his still relatively rare public appearances have included two speeches laying out forcefully the case for the euro, especially the potential for growth in investment and jobs.

Mr Blair is said to agree at present with Mr Brown that Labour can go through the next election once again without being explicit about when and whether it intends to take Britain into Euroland, and is not too worried that this might rule out a referendum in the first few months of a new parliament. Maybe - though if William Hague is going to try and make it a Euro-election anyway, there are real dangers of being forced back on to the defensive without a clear policy.

But even if the Prime Minister and Chancellor are right, they need to start now the gradual process of conditioning public opinion to the case for entry. Otherwise they will be not so much keeping their options open, as closing them off.