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Hague assault on 'straitjacket' EMU rouses CBI delegates

The CBI conference in Birmingham was yesterday told that the Government would change the law to allow companies to pay their taxes in euros from the official start date of the single currency in 1999. But business leaders reserved their loudest applause for an anti-EMU speech from the Tory leader, William Hague. Michael Harrison assesses a day of argument about the business pros and cons of the single currency.

William Hague, the Tory leader, entered the conference prepared for a "bare-knuckle fight" with the CBI over his party's opposition to the single currency and walked out with the loudest and longest ovation of all. On a day when economic and monetary union dominated debate, everyone from the Spice Girls to Ted Heath got a mention as the arguments over Europe swung one way and then another. Employing some of the most uncompromising language heard at a CBI conference since Sir Terence Beckett's famous challenge to Mrs Thatcher in 1980, Mr Hague painted an image of financial and social ruin if Britain were to enter EMU.

A single currency, he warned, could mean employees having to accept cuts in wages for the first time since the Great Depression as vicious unemployment black spots sprang up across the continent. His party, he said, had paid the political price for Britain's humiliating exit from the exchange rate mechanism on Black Wednesday and had apologised to the millions of people who had lost their jobs, their homes and their businesses. "I have apologised for the ERM. I never want to apologise again for following the dictates of fashion."

Mr Hague went on to dismiss the arguments of the pro-European lobby that Britain could not afford to be out of a single currency if the rest of Europe went ahead. "The danger for Britain is not that we will somehow be left behind in Europe. The real danger for us is that Europe could be left behind in the rest of the world."

The Tory leader conjured up an image of the straitjacket of a single currency binding Britain into a world of uncompetitive, inflexible and bureaucractic labour markets, outpriced and outperformed by the rest of the world and incapable of adjusting interest rates to accommodate domestic economic conditions.

"Unlike the ERM the single currency is for all time. British business could find itself trapped in a burning building with no exits. British business needs a hard-headed assessment of the risks involved in a single currency before we consider joining it. And that assessment is only just beginning," he said.

Mr Hague said that EMU supporters pointed to the US as an example of a successful single currency but this ignored the fact that there was a high degree of labour mobility in America while the government could automatically transfer billions of dollars from prosperous to poor states through federal taxation and expenditure. By contrast Britain had "a long way to go before we can say to people: get on your hovercraft and look for work".

Earlier during a heated 90-minute debate on EMU, the Eurosceptic Sir Stanley Kalms, chairman of the Dixons chain of high-street electrical retailers, had used equally colourful language to spread the message. He said: "Membership of a single currency would be irreversible, irrevocable and irretrievable. The nearest analogy is castration: our voices maybe pitched higher in the councils of Europe but only at the cost of our economic virility."

EMU, he added, represented a huge step towards a federal super-state and the ultimate leap in the dark. "But this time around we could not walk away from the mess."

The biggest laugh, however, came when Jeremy Woolridge, chairman of a West Midlands metal-bashing firm, B E Wedge Holdings, said: "Personally I would rather accept the views of the Spice Girls than the CBI on the single currency. I believe they are regarded as being against the single currency." For good measure he added that the Spice Girls, unlike the CBI, had not recommended entering the ERM.

The case for a single currency was put forcefully by Unilever's chairman, Niall FitzGerald, who warned that if Britain failed to enter, it would be a repeat of the mistake made 40 years ago when it decided not to be a founder member of the European Community. "Two unsuccessful attempts to join and almost 15 years later Britain finally managed to get in - missing the chance to shape the culture of Europe's institutions ... and forced to accept programmes like the Common Agricultural Policy."

That attitude of superior, sceptical detachment had done terrible damage to British interests and influence. "Now in the 1990s, Britain is in danger of falling into the same trap all over again." Provided there was greater economic and labour market flexibility, a single currency would deliver low inflation, lower long-term interest rates, a more liquid and effective capital markets and lower transaction costs. But he also took a sideswipe at the Blair Government's decision to rule out UK membership this Parliament, saying it was driven "more by political considerations - even media considerations - than economic ones".

Afterwards, Mr FitzGerald welcomed the fact that Mr Hague was now at least prepared to enter a debate about the merits and dangers of EMU, but he said it was a pity his party had not taken that position while in government rather than wasting valuable time. Martin Taylor, the "pro- Europe but EMU-sceptic" chief executive of Barclays Bank, said that Britain was too far out of sync with continental economic cycles to permit entry.