Industry chief attacks Tory far-right `fringe'

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The Independent Online
John Redwood's Euroscepticmeeting in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre next door to conference was attacked as the "frenzied fringe" by Sir Bryan Nicholson, CBI president, in his opening speech.

Mr Redwood,whose meeting attracted just under 100, of whom several dozen appeared to be media, from among the 1,000 delegates, said: "You are all very brave to engage in a debate at a CBI conference. Welcome to this novelty." But after speeches from the panel, invitations for comments from the delegates, who had enjoyed a free packed lunch, were met with one question from a journalist and a resounding silence from the rest of the audience.

The panel, sitting on the set of Congreve's The Way of the World, a drama of intrigue and wit, may well have aired the dissident view on Europe. But despite its billing as widening the debate, there was a tremendous air of anti-climax about the whole event. The fringe was clearly in no frenzy.

During the morning the enemy from Brussels had been straining every muscle to woo British business and all the questions from the floor of the main debate were curiously supportive of the main CBI line.

Sir Leon Brittan, vice-president of the European Commission, had already ridiculed Mr Redwood's argument that to join a single currency would mean interest rates and lending policies being decided by unelected officials in Frankfurt. Sir Leon said that Britain would not become one of the provinces in a federal Europe, adding: "Nor is it that the gnomes of Frankfurt will fax the Budget straight to the Chancellor's office, still less that an unelected European president will send British troops marching into battle to the strains of Beethoven's Ninth".

Sir Leon made an urgent plea for Britain not to close its options on monetary union, and rejected the suggestion that the Government should declare that it would not enter monetary union within the lifetime of the next parliament. "It is seductive but literally incredible to say that we would not really be closing off any options. I can only say once again that our partners' determination to go ahead makes it extremely unsafe to assume that by the end of the next parliament, in 2002, EMU will still not be in existence".

Niall Fitzgerald, chairman of the CBI Europe Committee and vice-chairman of Unilever, said British business and its economic interests had been damaged by political divisions over Europe. "It is time for the UK government to demonstrate that it can be a critical but constructive force in the shaping of the EU," he told delegates.

Peter Rodgers

and Mary Fagan