Leading article: Time for ministers to tell some home truths about Europe

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Almost the first act of Gordon Brown's chancellorship was to announce that the Government was - in principle - in favour of EMU and the single currency. By accompanying this with a crafty piece of politics - that, for the moment, practicalities and concern about the project's sustainability meant a "watch and wait" brief - the Chancellor was able to defuse the Euro time-bomb which had exploded in the Conservatives' faces. By adding the "triple lock" before entry of approval by the Cabinet, Parliament and people through a referendum, the Government managed to have it both ways. To Europhiles it could credibly say that it had bitten the bullet and announced an in-principle acceptance. To Eurosceptics it could say that their wish for a referendum had been granted and that, to all practical purposes, there was no possibility of entry during this Parliament.

But the chances of this game succeeding for more than a short while were always slim. Partly this is because of the nature of politics: no decision as fundamental as entry into the single currency could possibly survive such a fudge for long. It ripped the last government apart and, although Labour is far less divided on the question, it goes to the heart of what government is about.

More obviously, all the evidence suggests that the Government is not weighing up the pros and cons, but is genuinely in favour of entry and is using its "watch and wait" tactic as a way of buying the time necessary to convince a sceptical public. Tony Blair's warm words at the Cardiff summit; Gordon Brown's establishment of a committee to oversee preparations just in case; Robin Cook's increasingly pro statements: all suggest that the decision has already been taken. To that extent, The Sun's claim that the Prime Minister "seems determined to scrap the pound and take Britain into the European single currency" is spot on. But its motive has more to do with a sudden realisation that its insipid pro-Labour line undermines the natural friction between any "red-top" newspaper and the Govern- ment of the day, than with any great insight into Government policy.

The Government is now engaged on a back-door softening-up of the public, so that when the referendum does eventually come the current hostility will, as in 1975, turn into a powerful vote in favour. The next few months, let alone the next few years, will thus determine when - rather than whether - we join the project. If "watch and wait" was based on nothing other than a genuine attempt to look at the evidence before taking the plunge - if the Government was genuinely undecided - then it would be admirable. But it is not. By refusing to come clean about its enthusiasm, the Government risks undermining its own case by looking as if it has something to hide. The case for an immediate and public decision to join is powerful. If the Government thinks entry will be inevitable, then it should say so now and begin the real rather than the phoney debate. The most sensible way forward is surely to adopt a clear and unambiguous position in favour of British entry and then to combine that with a genuine "watch and wait" policy by holding off from signing up until the first wave of entrants have shown that the currency works.

As things stand we are in for a wretched few years, with both pro and anti forces slinging all sorts of wild scare stories at each other - the pros arguing that staying out will turn us into a Third World economy, the antis that going in will turn us into lesser-Liechtenstein. The longer the Government maintains the pretence that it has yet to decide, the worse this is going to get and the more fed-up an already hostile public is likely to become.

It is not as if the switch will be easy, once a decision is taken. Full compatibility will take many months - if not years - to achieve, and will be extremely costly. Time is of the essence.