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Labour 'winning the euro debate'

JASON BEATTIE CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT


The Scotsman - 3/01/2003

PATRICIA Hewitt, a leading Cabinet europhile, insisted yesterday that the government was winning the argument on the single currency and that a referendum could still be held this summer.

Ms Hewitt spoke out amid mounting speculation in Westminster that Tony Blair was edging away from taking Britain into the euro, fearing the economic and political circumstances were not right.

But the Trade and Industry Secretary denied the government had shelved plans for a poll, saying a decision would be made when the five economic tests were assessed in June.

"We would only decide not to have a referendum and not to recommend entry into the euro if we decided it was against our economic interests," she told BBC Radio.

"The political case for going in and strengthening our influence and our leadership inside Europe, that’s overwhelming, but the central issue is - is membership going to be good for our economy for as far ahead as we can see?"

However, her enthusiastic language contrasted with the neutral tone of Mr Blair’s New Year message.

Although the Prime Minister said the political case for joining the euro was overwhelming and described the decision as the most important for a generation, he also stressed the difficulties afflicting the eurozone economy, particularly in Germany.

But Ms Hewitt brushed aside suggestions the Prime Minister had got cold feet and was adamant the government was geared up for the referendum - if the tests were met.

"The first thing we are going to do is make the assessment of the five economic tests and, believe me, if we decide that we are going to go for a referendum and are going to recommend entry to the euro, you won’t be complaining about a lack of campaigning on our part," she said. The government was not losing the argument on the euro, she insisted.

Europhile union leaders also put pressure on Mr Blair to hold his nerve.

John Edmonds, the general secretary of the GMB union, said statistics released yesterday showing a manufacturing job was lost every two minutes in the UK last year strengthened the case for joining the euro at the earliest opportunity.

Uncertainty about adopting the single currency had become the major factor in deterring multi-national companies from investing in Britain, Mr Edmonds claimed.

He said: "The only way to protect these British jobs is to join the euro as soon as possible at a realistic exchange rate. If we don’t, British manufacturing will continue to plummet."

Roger Lyons, the joint general secretary of Amicus, Britain’s second biggest union, also called for a referendum to be held this year after a survey of 2,000 of the union’s members showed a majority would vote in favour of scrapping the pound.

"In order to put our manufacturing industry back on a competitive active footing within Europe we need to join the euro sooner rather than later," he said

"Let’s get the debate started so we can act to save the UK’s manufacturing industry by joining."

Euro supporters hope the surge of popularity for the single currency in Denmark, which announced yesterday it will decide in 2004 whether to join the single currency, will help to convince Mr Blair of the dangers of staying outside the eurozone.

With Sweden holding a referendum in September, they claim Britain could be isolated in Brussels unless it follows suit.

Glenys Kinnock MEP, the wife of the former Labour leader Neil, criticised Britain for its timidity. "One year on and the sky hasn’t fallen on our heads, as the sceptics ensured us it would," she said. "The euro is a thriving currency and the successful introduction of the notes and coins this year has been a real success for the EU [European Union] considering the logistics of the operation.

"Those who hide behind fears for our sovereignty would do well to look to the eurozone and ask are the French any less French? Are the Spanish any less Spanish? Of course not.

"Accession countries joining in 2004, such as Malta, are already making contingency plans for joining the eurozone."
 

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