Euro referendums put new pressure on PM to set date

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Tony Blair was under fresh pressure to name a date for a referendum on joining the euro yesterday as the only two other EU nations outside the single currency said they expected to take a decision on joining next year.

Buoyed by the smooth introduction of euro notes and coins in 12 countries last week, the Swedish premier and the Danish foreign minister both predicted referendums would be held in their countries in 2003. The statements raised the prospect that the UK could become the sole EU member outside its single currency if the Blair Government failed to settle the issue.

Sensing the changing tide within the EU, Peter Hain, the Minister for Europe, warned yesterday that Britain could even become the only member of an enlarged 25-nation EU outside the single currency after 10 new member states joined.

Mr Blair has authorised ministers to highlight the benefits of euro membership following the launch of the notes and coins. There was further evidence last night that the British public was warming to the new currency. A poll by NOP for ITN's Powerhouse programme found a majority of 51% would definitely or probably vote yes in a referendum in a year or two if the Government and a number of business leaders recommended entry, with 43% saying they would definitely or probably vote no.

If a referendum were held now, 43% would definitely or probably vote yes – up from 32% last February – and 53% no, down from 61% last February.

Yesterday, Denmark's Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said the country was likely to hold the plebiscite on euro membership in 2003. In an interview with Berlingske Tidende newspaper, he said the decision on the euro would come "when people have sufficient familiarity with the euro and experience which indicates that it is very impractical not being part of it".

In September 2000, Danes rejected swapping their currency for the euro in a referendum by 53-47 per cent but Mr Moeller said that vote was "theoretical" because of the lack of notes and coins. Some officials were cautious about Mr Moeller's pronouncement and wanted to hear from the Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Meanwhile the Swedish Prime Minister, Goran Persson, sketched out a timetable for euro membership for the first time. The referendum would be held at the earliest in spring 2003. If that was successful Sweden would apply around February 2004 for its currency to join the ERM-2 exchange rate mechanism. It would join the euro in 2005, introducing notes and coins a year later.

Pedro Solbes, European Commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, ducked the question as to whether this timetable was satisfactory and whether the UK would be required to join the ERM. The Maastricht treaty lays down a two-year membership requirement before joining the single currency but the British interpretation is that two years of exchange rate stability will suffice.

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