Simon Buckby: Mr Blair has to stop footling about on the decisive issue of our time

'Business stands ready to make its contribution, but it cannot win the argument alone'
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The Independent Online

The clock is ticking. Tony Blair has pledged that there will be an assessment of the Government's five economic tests on the euro within two years of the general election. If it is positive, there will then be a referendum on one of the most important questions of our age: should Britain join the single currency?

This is not a decision that can be predetermined by ideology or dogma. It should be based on a rational and pragmatic calculation of Britain's national interests. That is why the five tests are so important and should not be rushed. But if there is to be a referendum, then to come to an informed judgement people will first need the facts.

The anti-European myth machine has been in full swing for more than a decade, and it is time for the truth to fight back. To remove the hysteria and bring clarity to these complex and important issues, we need a great national debate about the benefits of the euro in principle, about Britain's relations with Europe, and indeed about what kind of country we want to become. Although Economic and Monetary Union is obviously primarily an economic and monetary measure, the political questions about our patriotism and our role in the world cannot be ducked.

We need to begin this debate soon, long in advance of any referendum, so that people can then consider the economic merits of the issue after the assessment of the five tests. And we need it to be led by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the new Foreign Secretary and the whole Government.

The stop-start approach of the past four years has to end. Occasional speeches without the necessary follow-through only tease the media and end up demoralising pro-Europeans. What is required is a sustained campaign, with regular speeches ­ in this country, not just abroad ­ by ministers fully and publicly engaged in a dialogue with the people.

Nobody else can transform the political landscape like Mr Blair and Gordon Brown. And this debate needs to revolve around an entirely different axis to that dictated by anti-Europeans in recent years. The choice is not between those who would subsume our country in a so-called European "super-state", and those who would stand up for Britain. Far from it.

While of course there is a debate about the future, and some European leaders say things with which we would not totally agree, there is not a single elected head of government who supports the bogus notion of a "super-state". We need to have sufficient confidence in Britain to stake our case, and all the signs are that the Inter-Governmental Conference set for 2004 is heading for conclusions we would favour. Enlargement to the east is a priority, and we are winning the arguments for greater national accountability of Europe's institutions, as well as for further economic liberalisation on the continent.

The real choice is between those who would fight to advance Britain's national interests through meaningful engagement in Europe, and those who would weaken our global standing and undermine our economic performance by turning our backs on the EU. While the former would renew our national self-confidence, the latter would turn us inward to an introspective nationalism, leaving us frightened of foreigners and the future. Let us be clear: saying "No" to the euro would undoubtedly relegate Britain to an outer tier of the EU, damaging our influence and our prosperity. That is the logic, and for many the stated ambition, of rejecting the euro.

It will soon be time for the patriotic British case for Europe to be heard. And if the Prime Minister and the Chancellor lead, as they have put the case so forcefully over the past few weeks, then there are many prepared to make the argument. Over the past two years, Britain in Europe has assembled a genuinely historic cross-party coalition, backed by Conservatives such as Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten, as well as Liberal Democrats under the excellent leadership of Charles Kennedy. Trade unionists, economists, councillors, leaders of charities and thousands of ordinary people across the country are ready to join in.

Above all, business leaders are champing at the bit. In recent months much of the business community has gone relatively quiet on the euro, perhaps even allowing opponents to claim that business has gone cold on the idea. The truth is that when it became clear that the decision was postponed until after the general election, there was little point in making much noise. Now there is every reason to speak out because there is no doubt that critical decisions about investment and jobs rest on the outcome. Business stands ready to make its contribution, but it cannot win the argument alone.

William Hague and Michael Portillo were obviously wrong to claim that the general election was a referendum in disguise. It was fought across a broad range of policies, which is why Mr Blair is quite right to promise that there will now be no snap referendum and no attempt to bounce people into a decision. But by giving the euro such a high profile during the election campaign and then losing so badly, they have gifted Mr Blair the mandate, not just the right but also the responsibility, to launch a great national debate. If in due course he does so, he will find himself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the vast majority of business leaders.

Mr Blair has already made the record books by winning a second thumping majority. Now he can make history by resolving the long-running sore of Britain's relations with Europe, an open wound that for 50 years has paralysed governments and undermined our ability to influence events on the continent that shape our destiny.

Invested with the moral authority of knowing that Mr Hague and Mr Portillo devoted much of their campaign to the euro and were routed, Mr Blair faces a choice. On the decisive issue of his generation, he can be seen to have whittled away his term in office in the footling manner of Harold Wilson. Or he can seize greatness, finally confirming the decision taken 30 years ago that Britain can successfully advance its national interests as a leading player in Europe. He has already shown that he is a great leader of his party. Now he has the chance to prove that he is a great Prime Minister. History starts here.

Simon Buckby is Campaign Director of Britain in Europe