We're finally getting real about Europe

There is a neat irony in the fact that the great and the good of British industry have ganged together to tug the UK closer to Europe just as German Euro-sceptics have mustered their forces to try to prevent Germany from going in to the single currency. In fact these apparently conflicting tendencies mark, in both countries, growing realism about the European debate. Before now, Britain's hysterical anti-European fringe has made too much of the running, while the debate in Germany has been stifled by the official religion of ever-closer European integration.

On this side of the Channel the businessmen writing to the Financial Times have brought to public attention the potential costs of becoming detached from the European market. Our right-wing Euro-phobes have used suspicion of the single currency to get the question of outright withdrawal from the EU onto the political agenda.

As the businessmen point out, even to talk of this costs investment and jobs. Britain has a real economic interest in remaining a committed member of the EU and the single market, and this has implications for the way Britain conducts its debate over the single currency. This element of the calculus has been drowned out until now by the puerile political uproar over EMU.

In Germany the missing element has been what price the country will have to pay for joining the euro. The political establishment there has been so insistent that Germany will not sacrifice its strong currency because the Maastricht criteria will not be fudged, and so committed to closer integration, that the other costs have been skated over.

These costs are not the obvious spending cuts that are bringing the workers out on to the streets. Germany, like France and Italy, would have had to reduce the level of industrial subsidies, allow old industries to die and deregulate their labour and goods markets anyway. Maastricht is both an incentive to do it and a handy scapegoat.

The real cost of joining EMU will be swapping the mark for a softer currency and handing monetary policy to an institution that will probably not be as tough as the Bundesbank. In the eyes of German public opinion, this might turn out to be too high a price to pay for closer European links and a more complete single market.

One thing is certain; that the outlook for EMU is becoming less certain. Will it happen on time? Will it go ahead at all? Who will be in? The financial markets will have plenty of opportunity for fun as opinion about these questions shifts during the next 12 to 18 months. What is reassuring is that the quality of the economic policy debate about the single currency has taken a dramatic turn for the better, thanks to the British Europhiles and the German EMU sceptics.

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