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Britain Still Undecided on Euro - 2001-12-31

Britain is remaining on the sidelines as 12 other European Union countries launch the single currency, the euro. Pressure is mounting on Britain's government to hold a referendum on whether or not to join what is called the "euro zone." Of the 15 nations in the European Union, only Britain, Denmark and Sweden have decided not to take part in the initial launch of the new money.

But the introduction of euro coins and bills has touched off a debate in Britain about the pros and cons of participating in the single currency system. Opinion polls indicate that most Britons do not want to give up the pound, and the issue has become entangled in the national political debate.

Leaders of the opposition Conservative Party say they will never back the euro. The ruling Labor Party under Prime Minister Tony Blair leans toward joining the euro. Mr. Blair has promised a referendum on the matter when economic conditions are right. Mr. Blair's deputy, John Prescott, told British radio that decision could be coming fairly soon. "What we have made clear is that we will look at it and by the early part of this government we will make a judgment," he said. "That judgment is on the way. And then that judgment will be put to the electorate. If we believe its in the interest of Britain, and Tony Blair has made clear in his New Year message as well, that he believes it may be, if the conditions are right."

Pressure is mounting on Mr. Blair from the pro-euro camp to act sooner, rather than later. John Monks, of Britain's Trades Union Congress, says adoption of the euro could revive the country's industrial exports and create jobs for the working class. He says the move toward the euro will lose momentum without vigorous leadership from Mr. Blair. "Today I am asking the government really to move forward on it. And to step up the preparation," he added. "Otherwise we are going to, in a sense, put it off and put it off and put it off, and then I think we will be talking about the next election rather than perhaps next year."

In the opposing camp is David Owen, a former foreign secretary who leads an anti-euro organization called New Europe. He says it would be folly for Britain to give up the freedom and independence it enjoys by having the Bank of England manage its currency and interest rates. Mr. Owen told British radio that this is why the pound is still so popular. "A very substantial majority of the population in this country do not want to give up the pound," he said, "not for chauvinistic, xenophobic reasons, they just find it works well for them."

Caught in the middle of the debate is the British business community. The leader of the Confederation of British Industry is Digby Jones. He says the uncertainty over the euro's future in Britain is hampering business decision-making. "We have got to show where we are actually standing, and over the next year or so actually come to the decision, one way or another," Mr. Jones explained. "It is the delay and the prevarication which causes the problem."

Meanwhile, British firms that cater to European tourists are preparing to handle euro coins and currency. Most major British department stores, as well as tourist attractions, say they will accept the new money. And Britons who travel in the euro zone will soon find they can cross borders without changing currencies. But only time, and a referendum, will tell if familiarity breeds contempt or acceptance of the euro among the British electorate.