In or out? Labour Must Commit. Tony Blair's Position on the European Monetary Unit Remains Cloudy. Here, We Present Three Different Arguments Which Lead to the Same Conclusion: It's Time to Go Euro

By Leicester, Graham; De Vries, Gijs et al. | New Statesman (1996), September 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

In or out? Labour Must Commit. Tony Blair's Position on the European Monetary Unit Remains Cloudy. Here, We Present Three Different Arguments Which Lead to the Same Conclusion: It's Time to Go Euro


Leicester, Graham, De Vries, Gijs, Radice, Giles, New Statesman (1996)


Get modern, face Europe

GRAHAM LEICESTER

Tony Blair will be a decisive Prime Minister. "If there are arguments to have, I will have them. If there are decisions to be taken, I will take them," he told the Scots at the end of June. But what about European Monetary Union?

That is likely to be the toughest decision of his administration. It will take courage to stay out of the single currency altogether: a gamble that might easily prove an historical misjudgment on the scale of Messina. But it will take courage, too, perhaps more, to join in the first wave in 1999. Can we really imagine a first Queen's speech that includes legislation to join EMU (a bill must be passed before the end of 1997), to make the Bank of England independent, and perhaps to hold a referendum? All this following an election contested on a policy of strict neutrality and in a first session crowded with other priorities?

In the circumstances the middle course, "wait and see", is irresistibly attractive. It is Labour's policy, just as it is the government's. Yet as Kenneth Clarke will tell you, it is not an easy option. It is but a short step away from definitively ruling out entry in 1999. Grandees have to write to the Independent with no more daring message than that options should be kept open.

Labour faces the same dilemma, only worse: it expects to be in government. Within months of the election it will become clear what decision Tony Blair has taken about entry in 1999. If he has effectively ruled it out there will be costs. Some will arise from exclusion in any event. But holding back only to join later will raise the price. The hurdles for entering in the second wave are likely to be higher, once the political imperative of launching in 1999 has passed. And there is a danger in the meantime that the initial members will exercise a decisive influence across the board, from which Britain will be excluded.

That is a depressing prospect for a man who has promised that "Britain should take its proper place as a leader in Europe." The key lies in developing Labour's policy in other areas to minimise the costs of initial exclusion.

First, a Labour government must demonstrate that any decision to opt out is temporary and prudential rather than a deliberate attempt to experiment as a free rider. Making EMU the theme of Britain's presidency of the Union in l 998 should be central to the strategy. If a Labour government wants any influence on EMU -- the initial membership, the nature of"real convergence", the democratic accountability of the European Central Bank -- it needs to develop ideas during the second half of l 99 7 and use the chair in 1998 to make them stick.

Second, Labour needs to play a positive and constructive role in the Inter-Governmental Conference. Blair starts with a number of cards in his hand where John Major has none. But policy on the three crunch issues is not wholly convincing. Labour's approach to institutional change is confusing: more catholic than the Pope in extending the role of the European Parliament, more backward than the Tories in wanting to hang on to two British Commissioners. Policy on reforming the inter-governmental provisions is if anything more dogmatic than the present government's. And on multispeed integration, possibly the most difficult issue for the conference, Labour has remained resolutely non-committal. All that must change in government.

Not by much. But no change will be easy to accomplish. Without it, Labour's present policy, quickly tested in government, might easily be blown off course into the same clear blue water where, in Lord Howe's words, the Conservative government has left the slowest ship in the convoy "all but at anchor".

To avoid such drift European policy should be rooted more firmly in the promise of political reform at home. Robin Cook began making the connection in his John Smith memorial lecture in June. …

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In or out? Labour Must Commit. Tony Blair's Position on the European Monetary Unit Remains Cloudy. Here, We Present Three Different Arguments Which Lead to the Same Conclusion: It's Time to Go Euro
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