Politics: Why I'm battling against the euro, by Lord Owen

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The Independent Online
THE MAN dubbed "Dr Death" will spring back into political life early in the new year. Lord Owen will launch a group that will be pro- European but opposed to early British entry into the single currency.

The former Labour foreign secretary and leader of the now defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP), who today speaks rarely about domestic politics, told The Independent he felt in "sympathy" with Tony Blair's Government.

"I see New Labour as a vindication of most of what the SDP did," he said. "I am very pleased with what has happened."

Lord Owen was loathed by Labour critics who believed he should fight his corner rather than found the SDP - and renamed him Dr Death for the damage they claimed he was doing to the party - and he remains a hate figure to them. But he insists that the breakaway party had "a very important influence" in forcing Labour to modernise. "Labour had the shock of its life in 1983, when it saw those SDP posters on its council estates," he said.

He revealed that he now met Mr Blair "from time to time", but would not elaborate. "I think Blair is doing very well, though it's early days. In personal terms, he has done well on Northern Ireland. He is right to make education a priority."

While welcoming Labour's constitutional reforms, he warned: "We are in slight danger of constitutional indigestion. You can go too fast; you need to pace yourself. Improving education and Britain's competitiveness and modernising the country are the important issues."

Despite his admiration for Mr Blair, the 60-year-old life peer, who sits defiantly as an Independent Social Democrat in the Lords, will be on the opposite side of the fence to the Prime Minister when he launches his new think-tank.

"I am not going back into party politics," he emphasised repeatedly. "My political life died with the SDP. I am out of it, I want to stay out of it."

Lord Owen said the group, which he will chair, would provide "education and information" about the historic decision facing Britain. Although it will campaign alongside the diffuse 30-plus groups hostile to the euro if Mr Blair calls a referendum, Lord Owen has rebuffed requests to head an umbrella "No" group. At this stage, his think-tank "does not want to be associated with people who have a long track record of scepticism and lack of enthusiasm for Europe".

Other members of his group include Lord Prior, the former Tory cabinet minister, now chairman of GEC, and Martin Taylor, who has just stood down as chief executive of Barclays Bank.

Lord Owen promised that there would be people "from all walks of life, whose hallmark is a lifetime of commitment to the European Union. We are serious Europeans who are worried about any rapid movement to a single currency." He insisted: "It will not be a group of old stagers and old farts. We will involve the younger generation."

Lord Owen is convinced that the other groups opposing the euro are wrong to start the "No" campaign now, since that might help to make a referendum inevitable.

Despite growing speculation that Mr Blair will arrange a poll shortly after the next general election, Lord Owen said: "It is perfectly possible we will never have a referendum.I don't deny that maybe his [Mr Blair's] inclination would be to go in if he saw a window of opportunity in the opinion polls. But I think we could mount a very effective referendum campaign, even if we started behind in the polls.

"What is at issue is the self-confidence of Britain as a self-governing nation. The disadvantages are clear. You are in a straitjacket. You cannot change your exchange rate or interest rates."

Lord Owen insisted that Britain could still play an important role in the EU while remaining outside the euro. "We might have to be taken more seriously than if we just become absorbed by the 12 [joining members]."

Nor would membership boost Mr Blair's hopes of joining the Franco-German alliance. "They are the dynamic, the reason the EU exists today. It would be very foolish to believe that could be changed. I don't think it will ever become a trilateral relationship."

He will not say that Britain should never join the euro. "There may be circumstances where you might see substantial economic advantages, but you would have to be sure that the EU would not become a United States of Europe. That battle has to be fought for the next five to ten years. If people think EMU [economic and monetary union] is part of a downward escalator to a United States of Europe, they will be very against it.

"But I don't think we should be hostile [to EMU]. I have no time for those who will rejoice every time it runs into trouble."

However, he did rejoice a little at two recent events: the Franco-German demands for the single currency to be accompanied by a common EU tax policy, and the lack of EU support for the British and United States bombing of Iraq. For Lord Owen, the latter was a "classic example" of how majority voting in EU foreign policy would never work, since Britain under such a system could not have acted alone. "Tony Blair tried to persuade the other EU countries to support him, but they failed him," he said.

Lord Owen believes that his latest - and possibly last - crusade will triumph, but conceded: "At the end of the day, if the younger generation decide they want the single currency, we will have to go for it the whole hog. But I will regret it to my dying day."