Leading article: Don't mention the Euro

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Finally, Europe has entered the election campaign. Yet it would be futile to pretend that it has done so in a manner conducive to better public understanding of the European issue. Voters now know, in case they were away for the last five years, that the Conservative Party is utterly divided over Europe. They know that dozens of Tory candidates, including the Agriculture Minister, Angela Browning, are defying John Major's government by promising in their election addresses that they will never support British entry into a European single currency.

Voters also know that Labour is gratefully seizing on the Tory divisions to avoid detailed discussion of its own European policies. They know that, for Labour, the absolute, unqualified priority is to win the election. Why waste time talking about one of the most momentous issues of our age, when all that might achieve is to highlight indecision and splits at the heart of the party? Such is the hard-headed view of Labour strategists.

What voters are being denied is a chance to assess in a sensible and practical manner the choices that await Britain over Europe. For example, there has been a woeful lack of honest debate about whether Britain should join the single currency, if not in 1999, then at some point in the next parliament's lifetime. Instead, both Conservative and Labour cling to the illusion that it is unlikely that the single currency will be safely born on schedule in January 1999.

This is wishful thinking of the highest order. It seriously underestimates the political will in Germany, France and other EU countries to launch the project on time and make a success of it. It confuses the British public, who can see the technical preparations for monetary union going ahead, but who hear their political leaders saying it will probably all lead nowhere.

The obfuscations of the two main parties weaken pro-European politicians, who cannot talk seriously about the single currency without contradicting their party leaders' lines that it is all a bit of a Continental fantasy. At the same time, anti-Europeans are permitted to blare out their propaganda like some out-of-tune orchestra. For voters hoping to weigh up the single currency issue on its merits, the official positions of Conservative and Labour achieve the worst of both worlds.

It could be argued that at least Europe has not become the central battleground of the election, forcing both parties into ever more Eurosceptical stances that could damage Britain's national interests. Alas, if that was true at the start of the campaign, it is less true now. Last Thursday, when Mr Major denounced Tony Blair's pledge to sign the Social Chapter, saying it would throw thousands of people out of work and ruin British companies, he was guilty of a deliberate attempt to twist facts and use Europe as a tactic to scare voters.

As the Prime Minister well knows, the Social Chapter in its present form scarcely amounts to a row of beans. Just two directives have flowed from it since the Maastricht treaty was signed in 1991: one on consultation of workers, the other on parental leave. Neither has cost a single job in the 14 EU countries that have signed the Social Chapter. Indeed, some British companies have adopted these measures despite being under no obligation to do so.Yes, a case can be made that many EU countries have labour markets and welfare systems which are too rigid and expensive. But that is a quite separate matter from the Social Chapter. Moreover, contrary to what the Tories say, most EU governments accept that they should liberalise their labour markets and initiate welfare reform.

There is more common ground on this point between Britain and its EU partners than the Tories care to admit. Predictably, however, with their last throw of the dice they are gambling that a xenophobic appeal to British prejudices will perform a miracle and win them a fifth consecutive term. Mr Major permits this ranting to go on even though he knows it is absurd to say that the EU threatens British liberty and prosperity. The disastrous consequence of his failure of leadership is that Tory extremists, committed to taking Britain out of the EU, have steadily gained ground in the party. This is one particularly good reason to throw out the Tories on 1 May.