Businesses unite to urge euro entry

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MORE THAN 100 leading businessmen have united in the biggest push so far to persuade Tony Blair to announce Britain's intention to join the single currency after the first wave next month.

In an open letter, the leaders of some of the country's most important businesses - from food and drinks firms to car manufacturers - call for an early signal of entry to the euro by the Government, requiring a referendum before the next election.

The business leaders include Walter Hasselkus, chairman of the troubled Rover Group, Dewar Durie, chairman of Allied Distillers, Lord Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods, and David Potter, head of the Psion organiser firm.

"The Government's decision that Britain should not join in the first wave gives us the ability to observe EMU's progress in the early stages from outside and to assure ourselves that the necessary criteria are met," the letter said. "But Britain's best economic interest is likely to involve joining fairly soon after EMU is established, and the best policy for Britain is one based on the assumption that we will join."

The letter warns that there are clear disadvantages to long-term self- exclusion.

It will intensify the pressure within the Government to make a clearer declaration of its intentions. Peter Mandelson, the Trade and Industry Secretary, has said it was no longer "if but when" Britain would join the euro. But with Rupert Murdoch's press vehemently opposed, Mr Blair is hesitating.

The Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, yesterday added his voice to the strong backing for the single currency.

Mr Brown told GMTV that he was in favour of the euro and that Britain "ought to be playing our part in that".

He said: "We cannot go in the first wave because our economic cycle is not compatible with continental Europe, but it is an objective of the Government's economic policy to get us there. I look forward to the day when the Government decides to join, Parliament votes to join and the British public enthusiastically wants to join."

A group of leading businessmen, led by Lord Marsh, who are opposed to Britain's entry to the single currency have formed a campaign for a "no" vote in a referendum on Britain's entry to the euro.

Sir Stanley Kalms, the head of the Dixons electrical goods chain and a major contributor to Tory party funds, is one of the leading lights behind Business for Sterling. Others include Sir Rocco Forte and Lord Hanson.

The letter supporting entry came as European socialist leaders met last night to agree on their strategy document for reducing unemployment in Europe, which has caused alarm about a left-wing shift by the European parties.

Theo Waigel, the former German finance minister, warned that it would weaken the euro.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, who will be attending a meeting of European economic and finance ministers today, denies it will undermine the criteria for economic stability.