John Lichfield: Europe's lesson for Britain: don't rush the referendum

'Europe has not yet become part of British self-identity even in the limited way it has in France and elsewhere'
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The Independent Online

At five minutes to midnight on New Year's Eve, I was standing, feeling cold and a little stupid, beside two cashpoints on an avenue close to the Arc de Triomphe. Both of the machines promised on their screens that they would switch to euros from the first minute of 1 January. I had expected long queues; or at least a handful of people, waiting, like me, for the historic moment etc etc. In fact, I was alone.

A couple of young women came up. They wanted cash. I explained that the machines were not working yet but that, if they waited, they would have their cash in (changing the emphasis in my voice for dramatic effect) euros. "Euros?" said one of the young women, looking at me strangely, as if I had said ducats or doubloons or pieces of eight. "Oh oui, les euros," she said and wandered off. She had probably heard something about it on the TV.

Two young men of North African origin wearing baseball hats and baggy trousers strolled along. Thousands of Arab (and other) kids from the poor inner suburbs of Paris pour into the city on occasions such as New Year's Eve to have fun and look menacing. They too wanted money from the cash machine. I gave the same little speech and the same dramatic emphasis on "euros". They waited with me. On the stroke of midnight, we tried the machines together. Both informed us we did not have sufficient funds.

We tried another machine around the corner. It only gave francs. The two young men in baseball hats shrugged. "That's fine, they said. "That's great. Francs is fine." They sped off to join the fun on the Champs Elysées.

Having returned home and dragged my 11-year-old son Charles away from the TV, I set off again in determined search of my historic moment and a machine that would, as promised, give me euros. We found one quickly enough. It was surrounded by wealthy, 60-something Parisians in jewels and furs who had ventured out from a party to claim their own historic moment. I solemnly handed a 10-euro note (£6) to my son (unfortunately, there was nothing smaller). "When you are very old, even older than me," I said, "you will tell your grandchildren about this night when..." "Oh shut up, dad," he said, and pocketed the 10 euros.

It was like that in Paris. Bizarre. There was a certain vague excitement. There was a child-like curiosity about the new notes and coins. There was no panic. There was no rioting in the streets. With a few glitches, the whole changeover was handled smoothly, even brilliantly, in France, as elsewhere.

But in France at least (I can't speak for elsewhere), it was as if we all sleep-walked through the greatest money-changing experiment in the history of money. It was best summed up by a cartoon in Le Canard Enchainé which showed a man holding up a euro note and saying: "It was all true then. All this stuff in the newspapers about euros..."

Beforehand, I found myself suspicious about the calm of France. This proud nation surely would not take the loss of the franc so easily. There is a passive-querulousness about the French, which can be misleading. One minute they are grumbling quietly to themselves or pretending to be content. The next moment, they are throwing cobble-stones at the CRS. (Judging by the low profile maintained by most French politicians until it was evident that things had gone well, many of the grands et bons shared my anxiety.)

But, no, it seems our neighbours really did not care that much about the loss of the franc. It seems that this impatient people were prepared to put up with a considerable amount of nuisance in the name of European unity. If you asked Parisians why there should be euros, it often seemed that they had never thought much about that question. After a few moments, they would talk – sometimes movingly, sometimes mechanically – about war and peace and European solidarity, rather than possible, economic gains.

Of course, some people were just parrotting what they had heard on TV. Many people seemed, at most, warmly neutral, as if this was just another of those things "they" think up, which are probably justified but unavoidable, like census forms or bus lanes.

What does all this mean? France is as irretrievably French as Britain is irretrievably British. The coming of the euro will not change that. The ease with which the euro has passed in France is partly explained by the fact that there are no Daily Mails or Suns in France, churning out exaggerated, anti-European nonsense.

But there is more to it than that. The great majority of French people have accepted Europe – maybe unthinkingly, maybe shallowly – as part of their sense of identity. This is quite different from having a sense of European identity. French people, young and old, are first and foremost French. But "Europe" is not something threatening. It is something vaguely warm and positive.

An even greater sense of European identity may, or may not, be generated in time by the euro, which, as the European Commission President, Romano Prodi, said, places "a little bit of Europe" in people's hands for the first time. In the short run, it would be interesting to see whether – warm feelings for Europe notwithstanding – a deepening recession in Europe would be blamed, irrationally, by the French and other Eurolanders on Mr Prodi's little bit of Europe in their wallets.

In the meantime, what does the success of the euro-launch mean for Britain? To declare my own interest, I am a paid-up Europhile, 50 per cent Belgian, with an Irish wife and bilingual children. But there is also the part of me that is a Staffordshire-born, Manchester United-supporting little Englander who understands the deep attachment of most British people for the pound. I fail to understand – crazed pro-European though I am – why a technically succesful launch of the euro should alter British opinions very much. (If it does, it will be a great own goal by the Eurosceptic press, which has taught its readers to think all things EU are at once wicked and incompetent.)

In the long run, we will probably have to adopt the euro, or remain, spiritually at least, in the European second division. Reading between the lines of recent government pronouncements, we should expect a referendum on the euro in the spring of 2003. The Blair government hopes (rightly) that the euro will be a smashing success. It also hopes that it will be possible, within 18 months, to appeal to British pragmatism over the head of British sentiment.

I doubt it. I believe that the Government would lose a referendum called so soon. Europe has not yet become part of British self-identity even in the limited way that it has in France and elsewhere. It will not be easy to make a case for the euro as soon as spring 2003 on practical grounds alone. Significantly greater growth in Euroland? Significantly greater investment? Significantly lower inflation? Within 18 months?

Abstract and spiritual arguments will not win the day, as they have in France. A lost referendum would delay British entry for a decade or more. There is a strong Europositive argument for not rushing the question.

Fergal Keane is away and will return next week