Leading Article: Europe united in a clash of nations

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The Independent Online
SO THE launch of a single currency for Europe has been celebrated with fireworks - a dispute of the traditional European kind. It is not a dispute about policy. Both candidates for president of the European Central Bank are solid monetary conservatives. It is a dispute about nationality. One is French, one is a German-backed Dutchman. The greatest act of European integration has been launched in a squabble which confirms that the European Union is still a collection of nationalities. Imagine if Alan Greenspan's reappointment as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board had been opposed on the grounds that he came from New York and it was the Californians' turn. If the introduction of the euro really does create a single European super-nation, as it does to some sceptical eyes, then this weekend's squabble should be the last such. No such luck. Nationality will be pitched against nationality for some time to come in the business of the EU.

But the presidency of the central bank, at least, has been settled for the next 12 years: a little-noticed aspect of the deal is that after Wim Duisenberg, the Dutchman, steps down in four years' time, Jean-Claude Trichet, the Frenchman, gets a full eight-year term. Yes, it is a fix and a revealing slice of raw politics. It is against the "spirit" of the Maastricht treaty, which says the bank president's term of office shall be eight years. But is this the "fudge" which would so damage the prospects of success for the euro and against which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown set their faces? Hardly. Much more significant is the fudging of the criteria set out in the treaty for deciding which countries may join the euro. An elastic measuring-tape has been used to check some figures for public debt, and only Greece has been kept out on quality-control grounds. But the markets have known for some time that it will be a "broad euro" not a narrow one - that is part of the reason why the German mark has been down and the pound up - and it would have been peculiar for Messrs Blair and Brown to veto something of which Britain was not part.

The argument over the European Central Bank has produced another charge: that Mr Blair has chaired the talks badly, by failing to square his friend Jacques Chirac in advance of this vital meeting. This is just plain silly: if the French want to kick up a Gaullist fuss about the nationality of a Euro-functionary, there is precious little that even Mr Blair, who has answered the Irish Question and achieved breakthrough in the Middle East, can do about it.

The new central bank may have been undermined by having politicians bend its rules before it is set up. But a much more important question is whether those rules are right. The Duisenberg-Trichet row has drawn attention to the fact that the constitution of the ECB, as laid down in the Maastricht treaty, is flawed. The eight-year, non-renewable term for the president may be modelled on the Bundesbank - the Platonic ideal of central banks - but it is too long. Mr Greenspan is half way through his third four- year term at the Fed, and no one suggests that his effectiveness has been compromised by periodic reappointment. The trouble with the German central bank model is that it equates independence with lack of accountability. The Bundesbank makes its decisions in secret and they are always "unanimous". The ECB is expected to operate in the same way, but the treaty says it "may decide to make the outcome of its deliberations public". It should do so. And Mr Duisenberg should submit himself to regular public questioning by European finance ministers and the European Parliament, just as Mr Greenspan gives evidence to congressional committees and Eddie George appears before the Treasury Select Committee. None of this would compromise the ECB's independence, but openness would strengthen its democratic legitimacy. It seems curious - not to say arrogant - to suggest that the United Kingdom's monetary institutions are superior to Germany's, given the two countries' records on inflation. But haphazardly and by accident, in response to failure, we have evolved an independent Bank of England which sets policy openly, with differences of view argued out in public. Politicians do not set interest rates, but the people who do are accountable in the broader sense - an accountability the institutions of the EU desperately lack.

This is an important issue, but in the end it is not going to make the difference as to whether Britain should or should not join the euro. That, as Mr Blair reiterated yesterday, remains a fundamentally economic rather than political question. It is one of the great mysteries of applied economics that, 25 years after Britain joined the Common Market and six years after the creation of the "single market", the British economic cycle remains out of sync with the continental one. Mr Blair's position is not easy, but it is right: to postpone entry until there is genuine convergence, while trying to ensure the constitution of the euro emphasises openness and transparency.