Leader: A fresh chance to talk sense about the euro

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The Independent Online
Break open a bottle of Best Schadenfreude and celebrate Helmut Kohl's troubles. It is impossible not to enjoy the comedy of national stereotypes confounded. The German government, which has been lecturing slippery Italians and slapdash Spaniards on the sober virtues of double- entry book-keeping, has been accused by the Bundesbank of creative accounting. What a piece of Mediterranean sharp practice it is too. Using the revaluation of the country's gold reserves to plug the government's borrowing requirement is a bit like remortgaging your house to pay off your credit card debts. At least our own late and unlamented Conservative government actually sold the family silver and took in some hard cash. Herr Kohl's book-cooker, Theo Waigel, wants to keep the gold and take the notional rise in its value into the current account. On that quicksand he wants to build the foundations of a new currency for the whole of Europe that would be stronger than the mark. As transport metaphors are favoured by the architects of European integration: it ain't no way to run a railroad.

It is not simply the discomfiting of German righteousness which is cheering, but the re-opening of the whole question of the timetable and design of monetary union. For most of our European partners that question was settled at Maastricht four years ago - but this week two large cracks opened in that settlement. The result of the first round of the French elections has prompted a panic rush for the lifeboat marked "soft euro". The centre- right coalition think their only hope in the second ballot is to talk of changing the criteria for the euro and easing the pain of convergence. That is serious. But should a crack open up in the other pillar, the German one, at the same time, it could bring the whole edifice down.

Britain's role should be to put a crowbar in both cracks and keep them open - a task for which this country is uniquely qualified. While Continental minds moved on to designing the notes and assembling committees to discuss the changeover, the debate over the fundamentals raged on in Britain, because of the running sore of Europhobia and the opt-out which it required. It may have been a poisonous business, but it has had its benefits. If there is one thing we Brits are experts on it is the defects of the Maastricht model - and that applies to pro-Europeans as much as to sceptics.

This newspaper has kept the European faith through the dark phase of Little Englander nationalism of recent years, but has repeatedly expressed worries about the democratic base of a single currency. Part of this is a matter of consent. French and German leaders have misled their peoples about the euro, justifying hard economic measures which they would have needed to carry out anyway on the need to meet the Maastricht criteria. Little wonder, then, that the euro is unpopular. But part of this is a fear that joining a single currency would cede political control to an "untried foreign quango", to quote Gavyn Davies, Independent columnist, Treasury adviser (and maybe a contender for the governorship of the Bank of England?).

So it is no bad thing if the German and French elites are forced to think again. It has turned out that the membership rules of this particular club were drawn up in such a way that the only big country eligible to join is one that is not ready to, does not want to and does not have to - the United Kingdom.

There are two possible solutions: change the rules or postpone the launch date. They are not mutually exclusive, and Europe should do both - but the important thing is to delay. Most especially, it would be a mistake simply to relax the criteria and let everyone have prizes. Some countries argue that they might not meet the criteria to the decimal point next spring, but they can demonstrate a clear trend in the right direction. If so, let them demonstrate it. What's the rush? If something like this is worth doing, it's worth getting it right.

Genuine economic convergence, which everyone agrees is the precondition of stable monetary union, cannot be hurried just because some politicians in a post-war mind-set hit upon a date with a millennial ring to it in a dull Dutch town at the end of an already forgotten decade. Chancellor Kohl's argument is that the process is like riding a bicycle which will fall over if it stops. Nonsense. And so what if it does? That would only prove that our legs are not long enough to reach the ground. It is more persuasive to argue that Europe's leaders will not get on with it unless they have a deadline, but if the deadline is set too early the work will not be done properly.

As Herr Kohl shed tears this week, remembering the Marshall Plan which rebuilt Europe after the war, he marked the passing of his dream of European unity. He may well still win next year's German elections - the opposition SPD shows a depressing inability to present a potent challenge. But he has been seriously damaged by Germany's failure to qualify for the euro without resort to one-off expedients.

There is an unexpected opportunity here for Tony Blair to play the leading role in Europe which his campaign rhetoric promised, but which seemed implausible while the twin pillars of the Paris-Bonn arch stood firm. Mr Blair - as he never tires of reminding us - comes from a different generation. His attitudes to Europe are not shaped by the memory of war. His view of the single currency is pragmatic - and Augustinian in the sense that he is quite happy to be virtuous, but not yet. The least important consequence of this week's events is that it makes the Tory leadership contest look like a medieval theologians' debating competition. But even that adds to the sense that Mr Blair makes his own luck, and is well placed, tanked up with the rocket-fuel of his landslide victory, to seize his moment. If the single currency does need to be re-engineered, then this time Britain could really be at the heart of the debate.