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

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?