Drive to sell the 'Euro' begins

Madrid summit: After 'historic' moment, the hard part now is to win over a sceptical public

The new political will at the summit here to secure a single currency, symbolised by the naming of the Euro, appears to have increased chances that monetary union will happen in January 1999. But, given the rhetoric about the "historic" moment, there was little sense of euphoria; rather, the conference was marked by an underlying sense of unease.

Doubts persisted about whether France and several smaller countries will make the grade to join EMU and John Major's warnings about dividing Europe jarred with the otherwise harmonious tones of other leaders. But the unease was prompted perhaps more strongly by fears about the task of selling EMU to the public.

As Chancellor Helmut Kohl acknowledged yesterday, winning support is about more than a sales-pitch for the single currency: it is a sales-pitch for the whole process of European integration: "We have got to do everything to convince the people of Europe of the absolute necessity of the European Union in all areas."

The practical decisions taken at Madrid show political and technical EMU planning has come a long way this year. The timetable for the changeover was agreed: early in 1998 the political decision will be taken on which countries qualify to join EMU, which will start on 1 January 1999, with the locking of exchange rates. Notes and coins will start to circulate in 2002.

For Bonn and Paris, the alliance which drives the EU, Madrid was a good meeting. Mr Kohl had cause to celebrate that the deal had been struck so far largely on Germany's terms. President Jacques Chirac appeared unshaken by the unrest which has followed his budget cuts, necessitated by economic convergence for EMU.

The summit was also something of a watershed for Britain. Despite Mr Major's warnings, there was a new tone of British realism, giving cause to believe that even he recognises Britain may be there too at the starting- line in 1999.

For the first time, Mr Major ruled out using the Conservative manifesto to oppose EMU membership in 1999. Even his more strident warnings suggested he knows the coming of EMU is now a reality.

Mr Chirac appeared to have sensed the new British realism, as he put it. Brushing off Mr Major's warnings about a division between those inside EMU and those left outside, as if they were designed only for a Westminster audience, Mr Chirac said: "I have great confidence that Britain will participate in monetary union in 1999."

But there was little doubt the EMU-enthusiasts in Madrid have been shaken by the French strikes. Mr Chirac's denials that there is a connection between his budget-cutting and the Maastricht convergence criteria sounded hollow and will mean little to the French public, whose protests have been marked by an anti-European tone. Belgium has seen similar protests and German concern about sinking the Mark into a weak single currency has also brought to the fore a strain of Euro-scepticism.

It is against this background that European leaders will try to gain credibility on the streets for EMU by preparing the public, commerce, industry and banks. The European Commission is gearing up for an education campaign in schools and on television to win public support for the single currency.

Yesterday Mr Major sneered at the Commission plans, but the Government would clearly be embarrassed if single-currency campaigns appeared on British television and billboards in the run-up to the next election and before Britain had decided to join. Germany is to launch its education campaign in spring and other countries will do likewise.

The task is immense. People are asking if sacrifices required to ensure EMU will come about are worthwhile. Government heads hope practical measures, particularly naming the currency, will help convince people they must enthusiastically seize this turning-point. However, so bland was the name chosen, that after Madrid, Europeans might feel even less inspired by the currency revolution.

No European leader spoke of the Euro with joy. As they knew, the more concrete EMU plans become, the more real the prospect of the change, the higher the risk of fear and doubt among ordinary people.

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