Blair speech signals point of no return over euro

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Tony Blair embarked on the biggest political gamble of his premiership on Friday when he paved the way for a campaign for Britain to join the euro.

The Prime Minister declared that Britain's future was "inextricably linked" to Europe and the reality of EU economic integration. In a speech to the European Research Institute in Birmingham, Mr Blair warned that it would be a "tragedy" if the UK failed to take its place at the heart of Europe.

His speech delighted pro-euro enthusiasts, who claimed that it marked a point of no return for the Government's policy on the single currency and signalled the inevitability of a referendum on joining the euro during this parliament. Some Downing Street advisers believe a poll will be held between next autumn and spring 2003.

However, the Tories accused Mr Blair of allowing himself to be distracted from improving public services.

As the Prime Minister spoke, Jacques Chirac, the French President, and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, met in Nantes for a summit expected to end with a call to draw up a European constitution.

Sweden, which along with Denmark and Britain remains outside the euro, signalled yesterday that it wanted to join the currency "as soon as possible".

In his speech, Mr Blair said that Britain must "adjust to the facts" of an integrated Europe and avoid repeating the "history of missed opportunities".

"The tragedy for British politics – for Britain – has been that politicians of both parties have consistently failed, not just in the 1950s but on up to the present day, to appreciate the emerging reality of European integration. And in doing so they have failed Britain's interests," he said.

"Reversing that failure of imagination, mapping out a new vision for Europe and Britain in Europe ... is the task of this Government."