Leading Article: Come on, Mr Blair: call a referendum on the euro now

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The Independent Culture
TONY BLAIR said last week that his Government intended to join the single European currency provided that the conditions were right. Fudge and mudge, as David Owen once famously said. "Both intention and conditions are genuine," the Prime Minister declared. But this is simply not true. The intention is genuine, but the conditions are stuff and nonsense. It has been plain since long before he became Prime Minister both that Mr Blair would like Britain to join the euro, and that he began tiptoeing flat out towards that aim the moment he entered Downing Street.

As a political tactician, he has been clever to the point of brilliance. The pro-European Tory big beasts are purring in his lap. Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine have been round to Downing Street for little chats - much to the fury of William Hague, who is now forced into making veiled threats against them. Chris Patten is over in Northern Ireland reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The smaller Tory cats are going to run candidates against Mr Hague's party in the European elections this summer.

And the forces opposed to the euro are so deeply divided that today sees the launch of David Owen's "Not Yet" campaign, which cannot bring itself to say what it really thinks - which is that it hopes Britain will be able to get away with never joining. It is thus in the same quagmire of not liking the euro yet not wanting to rule it out absolutely in which Mr Hague flounders.

Dr Owen's main contribution to British politics has been to be right about everything at the wrong time, and we can only admire the judgement of those who have decided to give his latest venture a wide berth.

Mr Blair knows that to declare definitively for the euro would allow his opponents to unite. But he is going to declare, so he should do so now. Otherwise the gap between his real position, which everyone knows, and the position he maintains in public, will damage his credibility.

The weakest part of Mr Blair's statement last week was his attempt to justify spending public money on preparations for converting to the euro - a conversion that cannot happen until the public has voted for it. He simply pretended that this was prudential planning for a contingent event; but a referendum is not an act of God; it is decided by an Act of Parliament.

So we have to ask, again, why can we not have the referendum before the next election, rather than afterwards? If the Government continues to postpone the referendum, and the official declaration in favour of the euro that must precede it, its actions will still be seen as trying to bounce the people into a "Yes" vote. Let us have honesty and clarity on both sides of the argument, and resolve this intractable issue once and for all.

Last week, the Prime Minister said that in order to "give some greater certainty to business and the country", he was making clear that the Government would not make a decision "in this Parliament" on whether or not to recommend joining the euro. But it is precisely that refusal to decide that causes such uncertainty. And it is a decision that has already been made in principle - it is just the timing that has not been settled.

That, in turn, will be decided when Mr Blair thinks he can win a "Yes" vote, while "sustainable convergence" of the British and European economies acts as the cover story. But we are already moving rapidly to a situation where the referendum can be won.

In the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, public opinion moved within months from 2-to-1 against to 2-to-1 in favour of Europe. As we report today, Vauxhall workers want to be paid in euros so they can benefit from cheaper mortgages. After the election, circumstances may not be so favourable. Move up another gear, Mr Blair: declare for the euro, set a date for joining in 2002 or 2003, and call the referendum.