International Papers

Britain’s Euro Neurosis

Although the news had been expected, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown’s announcement Monday that the conditions are not yet right for Britain to join the euro sent the London papers into a fit of frustration. Brown said only one of the five tests he had set for British membership in the European single currency has so far been met. However, he maintained that it’s still possible—albeit highly unlikely, according to observers—that there could be a plebiscite on joining the euro in the fall of 2004. (For more on the five tests and the possibility of a euro referendum, see this BBC Q&A.) The Guardian’s editorial sighed, “It feels like the biggest setback that the pro-European cause has suffered in over a generation.”

The Financial Times’ Martin Wolf declared, “Never in human history can so many have written so much for so small a result. After publishing 18 detailed studies, plus a 246-page assessment, the Treasury’s answer on UK membership of the European single currency remains what it was in 1997: ‘not yet.’ It is a warmer ‘not yet.’ But whether and when the UK will join remains obscure.” The Times’ editorial applauded Brown’s decision not to “be rushed to meet an artificial timetable or to satisfy the personal politics of the prime minister,” but worried that in postponing the decision, “he seems to have created a state of permanent review, much as Mao Tsetung believed in permanent revolution. The compromise on which the Prime Minister appears to have insisted … creates a climate of continuing uncertainty.” The tabloid Sun was more direct: “One thing has been decided on the euro: The indecision goes on.”

According to the Daily Telegraph, political considerations are behind Britain’s delay in adopting the euro, with pro-European politicians recognizing the public’s reluctance to give up the pound: “[T]he reality is that the prospect of obtaining a positive vote in a referendum on the euro has probably never been more remote, and the measures the Chancellor outlined and hinted at yesterday will do little, if anything, to improve it.” The Independent saw the problem as a lack of political will: “For all they bleat about the virulently Eurosceptic press and the risks of a referendum, their nerve has failed.” The Financial Times blamed Brown: “[T]he benefits of euro membership are clear and the barriers are disappearing fast. The biggest obstacle now remaining is the chancellor, and the bogus economic tests he has used to block again British involvement in Europe’s economic and monetary union.”

Several papers focused on the personal rivalry between the pro-euro prime minister and the more euro-skeptic chancellor. The FT’s Martin Wolf concluded, “Tony Blair has won on the procedure, while Gordon Brown has won on the substance.” The speech provided an opportunity for the pro-euro, anti-Blair Daily Mirror to take a swipe at both men: “For six years [the government] has fumbled, prevaricated and avoided the issue. Gordon Brown hid behind his five tests and Tony Blair hid behind his Chancellor. Meanwhile Britain saw its influence drain away along with inward investment and jobs.” The editorial concluded, “Tony Blair and Gordon Brown should get a move on. The longer we stay out, the more we will lose out.” An op-ed in the Independent claimed Brown was spinning for Blair by including: “enough pro-euro window-dressing to please the Europhiles. … His aim was to give the Prime Minister enough cover to protect his pro-European credentials.”

Some European papers seemed almost envious of Britain’s predicament. Germany’s Die Welt supported Gordon Brown: “It’s bitter for Europe but, in the present context, good for the island’s economy.” The French business paper Les Echos noted that “a country whose growth has exceeded that of the eurozone since the single currency was launched and whose unemployment figures make its neighbors green with envy has the right to ask whether it should join in.”

The Guardian wondered how the delay would play on the continent: “[A] government which could and should have done so much more to promote British membership of the eurozone has not done so in time. On the contrary, it has taken a decision that, seen alongside UK policy over Iraq, will send a very disengaged core message to many Europeans who expected much more from Labour.” Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta looked to Britain’s royal family for an explanation: “It is much nicer to think that the British Cabinet could not take any other decision at a time when [Queen Elizabeth], whose image graces British banknotes and coins, is marking the 50th anniversary of her coronation.” France’s Le Figaro also blamed Britain’s love of tradition: “It is to avoid their European partners doubting [Blair’s and Brown’s] goodwill that the ‘no’ decision is dressed up as a ‘yes, but not yet.’ The United Kingdom replaced the Julian calendar with the Gregorian calendar 170 years after Italy, Spain, and France. So we can legitimately wonder at the length of time it will take to adopt the common currency.”