Britain Bypasses `E-Day' Celebration: Many Britons Were Feeling Left Behind as the Euro Was Launched with Few Hitches, but There Are Signs That the Currency Soon Could Creep across the English Channel. (World: The Euro Zone)
Dettmer, Jamie, Insight on the News
As the new year dawned the contrast couldn't have been sharpen On the European continent "E Day" had arrived and with it the rolling out of the single-currency euro notes and coins. But, across the English Channel, Britain seemed mired in a past that most thought long gone -- one of industrial disputes, threats of strikes and widespread complaints about a rail network that even the British government admits is the worst in Europe.
The contrast wasn't lost on either side of the channel. As Europe celebrated what a British writer described as "one of the most astonishing logistical exercises ever undertaken in peacetime," the British appeared less John Bullish and ready to consider that the days of the proud old pound may be numbered.
Even the British prime minister, Labour's Tony Blair, who has dithered about scrapping the pound, now appears closer to braving the electoral dangers and calling a referendum on the euro, although whether it will come this year remains unlikely.
Blair is caught in a quandary. British manufacturers and their workers concentrated in the Labour Party strongholds of the North, the Midlands and Scotland are eager for Britain to enter the euro zone -- such a move would end export-dampening currency volatility with Europe. It also could assist exports by weakening the pound in the run-up to the possibility of Britain joining Eurolandia. But further south, where Labour has made major inroads into the Conservative heartland, there is greater wariness of the euro, and dumping the pound-sterling likely would lead to the loss of seats later for Labour. Blair, who prefers sure things despite all his grand talk of taking the "tough decisions," remains squeamish about courting political risks.
Even so the year ended with Blair himself seemingly caught in the grip of euro enthusiasm and bewailing the British tendency to trail new ventures in Europe. Speaking at the European Research Institute in Birmingham, he noted that with each major development on the road to the European Union (EU) the British had carped about how it wouldn't happen or wouldn't work or wasn't needed. He added: "But it did happen. And Britain was left behind."
That feeling of being left behind clearly was in the minds of a lot of Britons as they watched the euro being launched with few hitches. Yes, in Italy there was a shortage of euro coins, and there were plenty of long lines elsewhere as Europeans sought to exchange old notes for new. But many of the queues outside banks in the Netherlands and France, for example, were unnecessary -- the old currencies can be swapped in the months ahead -- and the lines in some ways were expressions of euro enthusiasm and a wish to partake in a grand project uniting most of Europe.
Likewise, banks in Belgium were thinly stretched as ATMs were inundated in the first few hours of "E Day." But even the critics had to concede all had been pretty plain sailing.
While opinion polls in Britain continue to suggest that there remains a majority against abandoning the pound, public sentiment is shifting, thanks in part to what is being described as "euro-creep" and a sense that the scrapping of sterling is inevitable.
Most Britons now believe that Britain will adopt Europe's new currency sooner rather than later. Already the euro is starting to emerge tentatively as a parallel currency in Britain, with many taxi drivers, one-third of the country's stores and dozens of tourist sites willing to accept the new notes and coins when they're offered. British Petroleum has announced that it will accept euros at some "pump forecourts," albeit just a handful located near the southern ferry ports.
According to euro enthusiasts such as Blair's minister for Europe, Peter Hain, opposition will wane as the British get used to seeing and using the new currency. That in turn will lead to a "yes" vote when Blair summons up the nerve to call a referendum eventually. …