Leading Article: The euro is on its way and Blair must get off the fence

Share
Related Topics
Anybody who was asked would undoubtedly have predicted a strong showing by the Social Democrats in Hamburg's municipal elections at the weekend. The city is one of the strongest areas in the whole of Germany for the SPD - normally a true stronghold. But the main left party lost swathes of ground: although the party retained control of the council, the scale of the damage was sufficient for victory to look like defeat. Suddenly the federal German political landscape looks very different. The national opinion polls say voters trust the Christian Democrat coalition more than the red-green option that the German system would throw up as an alternative. The CDU-CSU's chances are likely to be further improved if the economy continues on the recovery track. Chancellor Kohl, aka Houdini, is set to run in the federal elections next year and win.

We might prefer the Germans to choose the SDP moderniser Gerhard Schroder as a more attractive chancellor than Helmut Kohl, who, however meritorious his former service, is past his sell-by date as the leader of 21st-century Germany. The Hamburg result, if it is symptomatic, has worrying elements, in particular the failure of the SDP to renew itself in voters' eyes, and the inflated level of support for the far right. But these are matters principally for Germans: the election also has consequences for us and specifically for the policy of benign neglect with which, since May, the Blair government has been allowed to treat European monetary union.

Now that the odds on Chancellor Kohl being in office next May are so much higher, the Kohl version of Europe's future looks virtually certain to stick. European money will be created according to the Maastricht timetable on 1 January 1999. Worrying about the Italians or the exact size of the German deficit will not stop the wagon. "Wait and see" starts to look less a policy of cautious wisdom, and increasingly a position of wary indecision.

It would not be cowardly for Britain to decline entry into the single currency, but it is pusillanimous not to tell the British people what our intentions are, and - if that is what we ultimately intend - when we might join. If the pound were to be locked into a Euro-equivalent value, the amount would need to be determined before next May. If the common currency were to begin in 1999 with sterling as a starting participant, the British people would have to give their approval in a promised referendum at least by the end of 1998, which would allow all of four months' preparation. Clearly those timings are insufficient, practically and politically. German and French banks are already gearing up to convert to euro transactions; British banks, beset by the problem of re-dating software for the millennium, are barely at square one. Meanwhile, is it conceivable that a referendum could be held next year, on the basis of mere months of debate? Londoners deserve at least the spring to mull over self-government in time for the referendum in May, which ought to mean campaigning on Europe could not begin till the summer. It is not doable, and it is time the Government said so.

In recent weeks there have been signs of Euro-manoeuvring by the Cabinet's two great Scottish rivals, Messrs Brown and Cook. Mr Brown glows with Euro-heat; Mr Cook makes the Europhiles shiver. That is all well and good: it is about time we saw some of the frozen disagreements in the Labour camp. As for the Prime Minister, he charms colleagues in Amsterdam but his body language at home leaves every option open. Now is the time for ostriches to lever their heads from the sand. The British people might not like it; they might prefer it if this period of Euro-silence lasted for ever. But the single currency will not disappear. Britain will not - cannot - join the nations qualifying on 1 May next. Having said that out loud, the Government should then open a debate about whether we want to make a commitment to joining a "second wave" early next century.

If Gordon Brown is sincere when he says the British economy is on a stable growth path, and so there is no need to "stop" growth abruptly in two or three years, then he is also saying that convergence between the British and continental economies will be occurring, as it were, naturally at the century's turn. That points towards British entry in 2002. That would give the country some four-and-a-half years to prepare: time enough for the banks and financial system to get it together, time also for both a single-issue referendum and for the next general election, which together would supply the necessary legitimacy. Alternatively, as others in the Cabinet might argue, just as we no longer have anything to lose by staying out of the first wave, we have nothing to gain by committing ourselves now. Which is it to be, Mr Blair?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past