Blair uses last summit before euro launch to advance case for Britain

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The Independent Online

European Union leaders will meet tomorrow for the last time before the launch of the euro, which will spell the demise of francs, marks, pesetas and nine other currencies.

Tony Blair will use the summit as part of a "softly, softly" campaign for British membership when he joins other leaders in hailing the creation of Europe's single currency. As well as reviewing preparations for the introduction of notes and coins on 1 January, the EU heads of government and finance ministers will again declare their faith in the project.

The ministers will meet in Brussels today and tomorrow before joining their heads of government at nearby Laeken tomorrow. Didier Reynders, the Finance Minister of Belgium, which holds the presidency, is likely to give each leader a pack of euro coins.

Not so long ago Downing Street might have seen such a high-profile event as a potential embarrassment to the Prime Minister of a country staying outside the eurozone. But Mr Blair seems determined to use the opportunity to advance his case for the euro.

While denying any change in government's policy, Mr Blair will say that he hopes the euro will succeed, arguing that this would be good for Britain and Europe. And he will no doubt sign up to the summit declaration, which hails the launch of euro notes and coins as a historic moment for the EU.

The introduction of the single currency across much of Europe is seen by Mr Blair as a crucial staging post in his plan to preparefor a possible referendum on joining the euro.

Launched in 1999, when eurozone countries locked their exchange rates, the currency has been introduced only to financial markets. Its transformation into a real entity will be crucial to allaying public fears in Britain. Britons make about 40 million trips a year to other EU countries and many will return with the new cash.

Although Mr Blair will not commit himself until nearer the time, the belief is that he intends to call a referendum in the spring of 2003. There is growing confidence in London that a six-month campaign for membership could persuade the public to vote "yes".

The most formidable obstacle to joining the euro is the position of the Chancellor, who does not share Mr Blair's desire to resolve Britain's "half-in, half-out" relationship with Europe. Gordon Brown believes Britain will join the euro one day, but he is in no hurry and would be happy to see the crunch decision put off until after the next general election.

Friday's summit will also decide the chairmanship of a crucial convention on the future of Europe – which will draw up plans for a new treaty change in 2004 – although EU officials fear that the decision will be delayed by horse-trading over which countries should host a number of new EU agencies.

The leaders will also talk about aid to Afghanistan; declare their new EU rapid reaction force operational; and unveil an EU-wide arrest warrant to help fight terrorism.