Leading article: EMU

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The Independent Online
AFTER 18 MONTHS of tip-toeing around EMU, the Government is at last declaring what we all know but the body politic still dare not say: the euro is happening and it is a development from which we cannot afford to stand aside. Yesterday's speech by Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and last week's comments by Peter Mandelson, the Trade Secretary, go as far as any ministers have yet dared. Britain must now prepare itself for joining.

What they leave out, of course, is the imprimatur of the Prime Minister himself. And what they do not say are the all-important two words: we will. Instead, government ministers are still resorting to the old formula of the need to plan "whether we decide to join or not". And the Prime Minister still clings to that oldest of all political techniques, that of leaving it to his ministers to launch a few trial balloons to see if the winds of political opinion will keep them airborne.

It's not good enough. While we welcome the Government's courage in going this far, especially when you compare it with the humiliating marches up and down the hill with John Major, we urge the need for a quick and firm decision to hold an early referendum on the issue. Britain cannot afford to wait until after the next election if we are not to repeat the mistakes we made from the 1950s to the 1980s, always signing up late to institutions we could have shaped?

Today more than ever, there really is no alternative to integration; half Britain's trade is now with continental Europe. The idea that we can ignore this to ride the tide of Asian growth has been blown out of the water by the events of this year. Even more ridiculous is the belief that we can become part of the North Atlantic Free Trade area - presumably a 51st state just ahead of Puerto Rico.

Brown, Mandelson and Blair know all this. So why don't they come out and show some genuine leadership, instead of their current coy approach, ever fearful of the reactions of their fairweather friends in the right- wing press? Blair and his Cabinet must come out and argue the case for abolishing the pound. They would look more principled and would establish their arguments with a public increasingly aware of the economic realities of a cosmopolitan world economy.

The voters are not fools. They are well able to make up their own minds without resort to the soft-soaping of Blair or the little Englandism of Hague. They know the score. Give them a few months, they will even have a pretty good idea of the conversion rate for the euro. Let them decide and soon.