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U.K.: EU And Euro Emerge As Election Battleground

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The U.K. is heading into a general election just over a week away (7 June). Despite the efforts of Prime Minister Tony Blair to focus the campaign on domestic issues, the question of the U.K. joining the euro currency zone and the issue of relations with the European Union in general have taken center stage. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at some of the issues in the election.

Prague, 29 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There is a half-century-old story that may or may not be true that resurfaces in Britain from time to time, particularly among newspaper editors whose tasks include writing headlines. It concerns a headline that was reputedly splashed across the front page of a London newspaper in a report about bad weather in the English Channel. The headline read: "Continent Cut Off By Fog."

The story is meant to illustrate what many see as the British characteristic of viewing their island as the center of all things, and everywhere else as the periphery.

Something of that attitude has emerged in the U.K. general election campaign, in which the pro-European Union prime minister, Tony Blair, and his Labor Party are seeking to win a second term in office on 7 June.

For this election, the Conservatives -- the main opposition party -- have chosen as their battleground the issue of ties with the Continent and the loss of national sovereignty which further integration with the EU entails. In theory at least, it is a sound issue to campaign on because -- although Britain has been an EU member for more than a quarter of a century -- a large part of the population has never really accepted the prospect of ever-closer ties with their Continental neighbors.

The "Tories," as the Conservatives are often called, have pledged if they win to seek immediate changes in the EU's Nice treaty. They say the treaty, agreed upon five months ago, is "flawed" because -- even though it is supposed to pave the way for the EU's eastward enlargement -- it actually tightens integration in the Union. And further integration, involving an erosion of national sovereignty, is exactly what the Conservatives oppose.

During the campaign, Conservative foreign-affairs spokesman Francis Maude has also pledged his party will block what it sees as the "misguided efforts" by the EU to establish its own rapid reaction military force. Blair has been a prime mover, along with the French government, in planning to bring that force into existence.

The euro common currency is also a key target. Conservative leader William Hague has warned that for Britain to drop its own currency, the pound, for the euro would be a risky venture into the unknown that could cost the country dearly. And he accuses Blair of planning to "rig" a referendum that Labor has promised to hold on joining the euro.

While the euro does indeed appear to be deeply unpopular among Britons, analysts note that the Tory effort to gain popular support does not seem to be working. Opinion polls show the Conservatives still trailing well behind Labor. As Steven Everts of the London-based Center for European Reform puts it:

"My impression is that [the Tory strategy] is not working, it is unlikely to work. Elections are won and lost on the state of the economy, the state of public services, schools, hospitals, health, and education, on all of that, and on all of these issues, as you know, Labor has a convincing lead vis-a-vis the Tories."

Another analyst, Peter Ludlow, who heads the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, points to reports that the strategy is controversial even within the Tory party leadership. He says:

"It's said that it is Mr. Hague personally that insisted that Europe should become 'the Big Issue' of the last fortnight, and that some of his most senior advisers were rather unhappy -- firstly, wondering whether this was politically sensible even in electoral terms, and secondly, I imagine, wondering if it was tenable over time or whether they might not paint themselves into such a corner that they might never be able to get out."

In that context, Ludlow notes what he sees as a certain ambiguity in the public's attitude to joining the euro. He points to a recent survey which indicates that -- whether they like it or not -- most people are resigned to the prospect that Britain will join the common currency in the future anyway.

In London, analyst Everts sees the irony of a situation where the Tory stand could actually have a positive "knock-on" effect for the euro. He says:

"The anti-euro cause is linked to something deeply unpopular, which is [namely] the Conservative Party in this moment in this country. So in that sense it might strengthen the hand [of Blair], or give Blair a degree of freedom of maneuver to move on the euro afterwards."

Blair himself has said Britain will eventually lose influence if it does not join the euro-zone. But, aware of the public's aversion to the common currency, the Labor Party is taking a cautious approach. Its policy is to favor entry in principle, but to join only if it judges the economic indicators to be right -- and if the British public agrees to that in a referendum. The drawback to that policy for Labor is that a referendum at any foreseeable time is likely to return a "no" vote.