The last and greatest euro-trauma of all

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ALTHOUGH it has fallen from the headlines, the launch of the euro remains the biggest geo-political event since the collapse of communism. It perhaps even rivals in importance the emergence of the USA as a world power at the start of the century.

Yet the British reaction falls well below the significance of the event. Having carped about its design, criticised its Franco-German engine and predicted that it would never come off, some commentators still hope it fails.

No such luck, euro-sceptics. All the signs are that the euro will be a huge success. The 11 inaugural members will launch it into something of a Euro-boom. As the economy of Anglo-America begins to creak, continental Europe will look much less sluggish. And nothing succeeds like success: as the euro settles into its role and takes a larger share of world trade, challenging the dollar, it will become clear the new currency is here to stay.

This reality should begin to dawn around six months after its formal launch on 1 January 1999. At this time the euro will again work its divisive will on British politics. This time the divisions will be terminal. Previous British Euro-traumas - in the early 1970s before the referendum, and in the 1990s as Thatcher was toppled and Maastricht signed - could just about be finessed. We could pretend to no real loss of national sovereignty: we were "co-operating" not "integrating". With the euro, no such pretence is possible: the currency is a quantum leap towards a federal European state.

Since taking over in Downing Street, Tony Blair has tried to downplay it all. The Prime Minister hardly wanted his administration to kick off with a Euro-crisis. But beneath the surface peace there remains a deep well of division. In one corner is the economic establishment, increasingly sure the euro is right for Britain; in the other is William Hague and the Tory leadership group, together with the popular press. And no one should underestimate the continuing hostility of much of British public opinion.

It is within Mr Blair's own party where the coming euro drama will be played out. The key figure, however, is the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. By identifying himself with the euro project and being its chief advocate in Cabinet, Mr Brown is in a pivotal role. As the euro picks up speed and credibility, his status in British politics can only be enhanced.

Mr Blair's "wait and see" policy will become increasingly threadbare. Once it is clear the euro will not implode,Britain's pro-European forces can move. Mr Brown can place himself at the head of a powerful coalition - the City, big multinationals and the TUC - which will argue that the UK should sign up much earlier than the far-off 2003. Last year Mr Brown skilfully gave himself an escape clause of "new circumstances" which would allow earlier entry. He will be able to argue that "new circumstances" - the success of the euro - exist.

The Chancellor will be able to make some killer points. To wait until 2003 or later will only further weaken Britain's position in Europe. The French and Germans will tie everything up so that when we finally join the key bodies the rules and conventions will be set in stone against us. He can also point out that the British nightmare of our future being decided without having a say is about to come true, so the sooner we get in the better.

Such a proposal may well collide head-on with Mr Blair's do-nothing strategy. The Prime Minister cobbled together the "wait and see" policy specifically to put off a decision until after the next election. Mr Blair will face his first real political crisis.

Intriguingly, Mr Blair may resist the europhiles. He is not a deeply committed European: his instincts seem to chime with the US economic globalisers and their vision of a corporate-led world of flexible labour and minimal welfare. The potential of euroland, under French influence, to exploit the currency for social democratic ends worries the Thatcherite instincts in the Prime Minister.

At the heart of Mr Blair's Euro-reticence lies his unedifying relationship with Rupert Murdoch. Even after his Irish triumph, he obviously still feels that without Mr Murdoch's support he cannot win an early referendum. He may try to get Mr Murdoch to call off his anti-euro dogs by using his influence to ease News International's way in Europe, but the powers in the European Commission may not be in a mood to help.

If Mr Murdoch will not agree to "sell the euro" to the British public - or at least stay neutral - Mr Blair willhave to decide between a media mogul and our European future. He will risk a split with Mr Brown and the kind of party division which finally sank the Major administration.

If he continues to dither, Mr Blair risks losing the mantle of principle, freshness and dynamism, and the carefully-built image of the man who makes "hard choices" will become a joke. He will begin to resemble Harold Wilson - the great prevaricator concerned only with political survival, while his friend and rival Gordon Brown will begin to look a winner.

Tony B1air gave a huge hostage to fortune in the election by pledging a referendum on the single currency. History tells us that the results of these plebiscites often depend not on the issue but on the public's view of the government of the day. Mr Blair would probably win a referendum in favour of British membership of the euro should he hold one now or very soon, but the longer he leaves it the more difficult it may become.

A lost euro referendum would be a tragedy for the country and for Mr Blair's reputation. All he needs is the courage to lead - even, if need be, against the wishes of a media baron.

q Stephen Haseler is Professor of Government at London Guildhall University and Director of the Euro Research Centre. He is also vice-chair of the Federal Union. A founder member of the SDP, he remains a social democrat.

q Hamish McRae is on holiday.