Leading Article: Debasing the European debate

The close of the European Union's summit in Madrid at the weekend has demonstrated the tragic width of the gap that separates the reality of Europe from British perceptions of it. No sooner had the EU's leaders reaffirmed their intention to proceed with the creation of a single currency in January 1999, and to call the currency the "Euro", than the chorus of blinkered Europhobes rose up to denounce the project as a plot against British institutions and the British way of life. It was not only absurd but also offensive to hear one Conservative backbencher on television compare monetary union to "the Fourth Reich" on the march.

John Major did not help matters by sneering at the choice of Euro as "uninspiring", and arrogantly likening his EU partners to lemmings tumbling off a cliff. Did that really sound like a leader determined to place Britain at the heart of Europe, as he promised at the start of his premiership?

The EU wants to make a success of monetary union, not because it has conceived some devilish plan to expiate ancient British freedoms, but because it sincerely believes this is the best way to secure prosperity and stability across the whole of Europe. The German political classes, far from seeking to rule Europe by means of a single currency, regard monetary union as the most effective way of binding Germany into Europe, laying to rest fears about German power, and pooling Germany's strength for the greater benefit of the EU. Germany's worst fear is that if there is no single currency, the mark will dominate the European economy even more than it does today, sparking what could eventually be a very dangerous anti-German mood in the rest of the Union.

None of this means, of course, that there are not serious doubts about the way the EU is moving to monetary union. By shackling itself to the January 1999 deadline, the EU runs the risk of launching the single currency at a time of stagnant economic growth, high unemployment, unpopular deflationary policies and a widespread sense of insecurity among many millions of Europeans. The lack of public enthusiasm in Germany for monetary union, and the recent social disturbances in France and Belgium, caused partly by government attempts to meet the Maastricht treaty's conditions on low budget deficits, are problems that cannot just be wished away. Moreover, the EU has been too slow in addressing the difficult question of how to manage relations between those countries in the single currency and those outside.

Mr Major raised such points in Madrid, but he would have received a far more attentive hearing if Britain's EU allies viewed the Government as a constructive partner in tackling the challenges facing Europe. Instead, the whining tone of British negativism has caused our allies to shut their ears even when we have a sensible case to put forward. John Redwood's latest attacks on the most pro-European cabinet minister, Kenneth Clarke, make it even less likely that British views on monetary union will be carefully considered in Europe. This country is being forced to pay a heavy price for the continuing Tory division over Europe.