People of Europe divided over single currency

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The findings of the Harris poll for the Independent reveal how unformed public opinion is across Europe on the question of a single currency - possibly the most important issue facing the European Union.

The gap between answers to the "hard" question posed by Harris and the "soft" question asked by the European Commission in its regular polls is about 20 percentage points in Germany, France and Britain.

Although the Germans and British are opposed to a single currency by similar margins, even on the "soft" question, the "hard" wording which draws attention to the fact that interest rates would be decided by a European Central Bank is enough to turn a majority in favour in France and Belgium to one against.

The European Commission poll in April and May asked whether people were for or against "a European monetary union with one single currency replacing, by 1999, the franc/Deutschmark/pound and all other national currencies of the member states of the European Union". In France, 63 per cent were "for" and 31 per cent "against".

But in the Independent poll, 55 per cent of French people agreed that "France should keep the franc with key decisions on interest rates and monetary policy taken by the Banque de France", and 43 per cent disagreed.

"It shows an awful lot of people are fairly easily swayed, in that if people were totally committed one way or the other it wouldn't matter how you asked the question," said Tom Simpson, managing director of the Harris Research Centre.

The poll's findings on a single currency were challenged last night by a spokesman for the European Movement, who said the public mood was "not so much scepticism as bafflement". He pointed to the Movement's poll last December which found that 69 per cent of British voters did not know enough about the single currency to be able to vote "confidently" in a referendum.

An NOP poll, also last December, found that, while 60 per cent were opposed to the plan for a single currency, by a margin of 50 per cent to 36 per cent, people agreed that if "the other main countries in Europe went ahead with a single currency", Britain could "not afford to be left behind".

This argument is endorsed by today's report of the House of Lords committee, chaired by Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Barnett, which draws attention to the fact that long-term interest rates in Britain are already 1.5 percentage points higher than in Germany and France. Quentin Davies, the pro-European Tory MP, recently claimed that joining a single currency would close this gap, saving the equivalent of pounds 10 per family per week in the costs of servicing public debt.

The Independent poll also includes a question which will be seized on enthusiastically by the Conservative party as it gears up for the election. It finds that voters - not just in Britain but across the EU - are overwhelmingly opposed to the Social Chapter, if it is phrased in terms of whether national governments or the European Union should be responsible for the law on "conditions of employment".

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