Blair under pressure to kick-start push for euro

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair came under pressure to open a national debate about the merits of the single currency, as pro-Europeans warned that his positive statement about the euro this week did not go far enough.

Chris Patten, a European commissioner, warned that Britain "must get real" about the single currency, adding: "We cannot continue in a semi-detached state of mind. If we are part of Europe we must be committed for it to be a success." The former Conservative Party chairman told Italy's Ap.Biscom agency: "I don't think that one can continue with leaders being driven from pillar to post. Blair has a huge majority. People would be surprised if he didn't use it."

Mr Patten said it would be "terrible" if focus groups determined policy and, in a reference to Conrad Black, proprietor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, asked: "Why should a Canadian publisher define British patriotism?"

Despite the Government's insistence that a decision on the euro would be based on economic grounds, Mr Patten said the argument was "not about economics but about politics".

On Tuesday, Mr Blair intended to make his most upbeat comments about the currency in an address to the TUC conference in Brighton. He scrapped the speech because of the terrorist attacks in America but still issued the text, which said he believed the critics predicting the euro would be a disaster were wrong.

Yesterday John Monks, the general secretary of the TUC, called for "an informed debate" on Britain's membership of the euro. He warned that Britain was unable to influence decisions about economic reform in Europe because it was "on the sidelines".

Mr Monks said: "We know that our exclusion means that the euro group is forging ahead, co-ordinating European economic policies which will have lasting repercussions for the UK, whether we are members or not."

He said the relative strength of the pound against the euro was causing "severe problems" for British manufacturing and tourism and the loss of well over 100,000 jobs had been linked to currency volatility since the euro's launch.

Mr Monks said the need for a more secure and competitive alignment of the pound against the euro was important and urgent. But he admitted that adjusting exchange rates was no easy process.

"The danger is that it hits stability and could prompt the [Bank of England's] Monetary Policy Committee to impose interest rate rises and require the Government to reduce public spending," he said.

The TUC conference ended a day early yesterday when delegates agreed it would be inappropriate to continue because of the US terrorist attacks. They stood for a minute's silence before filing quietly out of the Brighton conference centre.

Bill Morris, the outgoing TUC president, said everyone had been "deeply shocked" by the "appalling act of terrorism". He said the attacks "represent a fundamental assault on democracy and democratic values throughout the world. The grief of the American people must be our grief."

Mr Blair is now expected to make an unscheduled speech about Europe so that he can formally put on the record the words he intended to use at the TUC conference. Such a speech would be seen as a "softly, softly" attempt to prepare the ground for a possible referendum on the euro before the next general election.

However, Mr Blair is likely to disappoint his pro-European critics by shopping short of launching the "crusade" they want in order to win over a hostile British public.

Some close allies of the Prime Minister believe public opinion could be turned round in a six-month referendum campaign. They hope that Mr Blair will trigger such an effort next year or in 2003 if a "window of opportunity" arises because there is enough convergence between the British economy and the 13-member eurozone. But many euro supporters believe the campaign needs to start immediately if a sceptical public is to be persuaded to vote "yes".