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Viscount Waverley: My Lords, I declare an interest as I keep a watching brief on a joint Palestinian-UK project involving BG in the eastern Mediterranean. I also recognise the Prime Minister's determination for a viable Palestinian state. Is the Minister aware that Britain can assist in a substantive way by giving positive consideration to the possibility of ECGD support for two major projectsan area for which the Minister is responsibleto enable Palestine to achieve much-needed economic self-generation? The lack of such economic generation is arguably a cause of today's difficulties.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Viscount is right that I am responsible for the Export Credits Guarantee Department. If he would like to come and see me about the two issues that he has in mind, I should be happy to listen to his representations.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, the running sore at the core of this business is the illegal occupation of territory on the West Bank of the Jordan by the Israeli Government. My noble friend referred to the freezing of the settlements. Will she go a little further? Does she agree that it is impossible for the Palestinians to settle with the Israelis while those settlements exist?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, it is Her Majesty's Government's view that the settlements are illegal under international law and that they are an obstacle to peace. As a first step towards trying to solve the problem of the settlements, the recommendation of the Mitchell committee is that Israel should cease all settlement activity, including what has been termed the natural growth of existing settlements. We support that as a first step. We then want negotiation about the occupied territories and the settlements as part of the process. The noble Lord is right that we believe that what has happened in the settlement areas is illegal under international law.
We also have to remember that both parties must refrain from unilateral acts that have the effect of prejudicing the permanent state of negotiation. It is important to get the parties round the table to discuss that in the first place.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the outrages committed against Israel are also aimed at President Arafat and that paradoxically, and however difficult it may be, in a sense the outrages ought to bring the leadership of Israel and President Arafat closer together in facing an enemy common to them both.
The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, everyone in your Lordships' House shares a horror of terrorism and of innocent suffering. I have three questions for the Minister. The first follows on immediately from what she has just said and from the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Richard. Granted that the Israelis have destroyed the police infrastructure with which they are asking President Arafat to put right the problems and arrest the terrorists, is there any practical or token gesture of help that the United Nations or the European Union can offer to help to rebuild and support the Palestinian police force, its infrastructure, its buildings and its equipment so that it is in a better position to carry out the task that the Israelis have reasonably asked to be done?
Secondly, is there any way in which the security of Israel can be guaranteed by other powers and not left to Israel? As long as it is left to Israel, it will continue with its consistent policy of excessive retaliation. That may be understandable, but it is terribly destructive.
Thirdly, does the Minister genuinely believe that there is still the possibility of a viable Palestinian state? I listened to a lecture recently by a brilliant Jewish academic who passionately wants and believes in such a state, but who believes that even the Barak offer did not go far enough, was riddled with injustice and did not provide for a truly viable Palestinian state. We are now in a much worse plight than we were then. I wonder whether it is realistic for politicians still to talk hopefully about a viable Palestinian state, short of some dramatic change in circumstances that few people can currently foresee.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, it is still realistic for us to talk in those terms. If we do not, there is very little incentive for those currently living under the Palestinian Authority to seek a peaceful settlement. That is their ambition and, together with the security of Israel, it is one of the cardinal principles of the policy adopted not only by the United Kingdom, but by the European Union, the United States and other nations of good will who wish to help both countries find a peaceful solution to their difficulties.
There is a great deal of speculation about the detail of the negotiations that resulted from Mr Barak's offer. The right reverend Prelate has said that the offer fell way short of proposing a viable state. It is clear that both sides felt that, in the end, the negotiations had fallen short of achieving the permanent status settlement that they wanted, but both parties declared
Of course the international community must engage itself. I hope that it will be possible to guarantee Israel's security in the future, but we have to keep in mind all the time the balance between the security of Israel and the viability of a Palestinian state. That is enshrined in the United Nations Security Council resolution.
The right reverend Prelate also asked what we could do to support the Palestinian police force in effecting arrests. The Palestinian police force is still able to effect arrests and has done so, even since the weekend. The problem is not just effecting the arrests, but, as I keep saying, keeping people under arrest once they have been taken in. The right reverend Prelate said that the whole police force infrastructure had been destroyed. That is not correct, otherwise it would not be able to effect arrests. However, once those arrests are made, it is essential to keep those people out of the way of the innocent population, who otherwise suffer so tragically.
Lord Taverne rose to call attention to the case for the Government's decision on British membership of the euro-zone to be based on wider considerations than the five economic tests; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper is rather different from that which appears on the list of speakers. The words on the list of speakers do not make sense.
Most Members of the Houseand, indeed, of another placeagree that the question of our choice whether or not to join the euro-zone is immensely important to this country. The Government have called for a public debate; yet we have not often debated the issue, even in this House. I think that the last time that we specifically considered the euro was when we considered the Select Committee report on how the euro was working. We have also discussed Nice, foreign policy and the economic situation.
There are not many speakers from the Government Benches on this Motion. Indeed, when speeches are made in the country by Mr Peter Hain and, lately, by Mr Charles Clarke, if they stray only one inch from the territory staked out by the Chancellor of the Exchequerthe five economic teststhat is immediately regarded as a case of lese-majeste. The question of the decision whether to join cannot be the Chancellor's personal prerogative. In any event, the five tests to which he perpetually refersthe mantra that he invokeswas cobbled together at the last minute in October 1997, when it appeared that the Prime Minister was keen to take an early decision.
The tests are somewhat arbitrary; they leave out some important issues; and their interpretation can well be subjective. There are wider economic issues and, of course, there is the political decision, which is perhaps the most crucial.
I do not argue that the economic case for entry into the euro is absolutely clear-cut. Those who oppose it sometimes seem full of certainties, but I agree that there are serious arguments against, formidable difficulties that must be faced and uncertainties about the future. Some future developments are hard to forecast.
Let me first consider some of the difficulties. There is the problem of the single interest rate for the whole of the euro-zone. If there is no convergence of the economic cycle, or if there are external shocks peculiar to the United Kingdom, we would lose a useful instrument of policy if we could no longer set our own interest rate. That must be acknowledged. Ireland is the case often cited for that argument. Ireland, which is growing fast, needs higher interest rates; Germany, which is facing stagnation, needs lower interest rates. Ireland is the favourite example cited by those who say that one interest rate policy cannot work.
First, it was interesting to find, during the evidence to the Select Committee on the working of the euro, that the expert witnesses from Ireland testified that they faced no problem that would not be more difficult to solve if they were outside the euro-zone. They also testified that they had found the benefits of membership of the euro-zone even greater than those predicted in the paper that persuaded the government to take the decision to join. Yes, they face higher inflation, but temporary higher inflation is one of the ways in which regions in a single currency area adjust when they grow at a faster rate than they can maintain in the longer run.
My second point is that the biggest shock for Britain has been that of a fluctuating currency. That is the greatest problem that we have faced. In 1989, the pound was worth 3.3 deutschmarks. It declined to 2.2 deutschmarks and has risen again to more than 3 deutschmarks. That has played havoc with manufacturing industry. The best guarantee against that kind of shock is stability of a currency in the area in which mostmore than halfof our trade is conducted.
Thirdly, it is significant that after careful examination the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently found that the United Kingdom was broadly convergent with the rest of the European Union and the euro-zone countries, and that there was now more convergence with Europe than with the United States. Interest rates have converged and joining monetary union is likely to increase that pattern of correlation.
I turn briefly to the serious problem, omitted from the five tests, of exchange rates. We can influence the exchange rate. If we announce a decision to join, subject to a referendum, and if we further announce that we intend to negotiate joining within a range of, say, 2.45 and 2.85 deutschmarks, that should have a
Another problem is that of the co-ordination of fiscal policy. Fiscal policy must be co-ordinated to match a single monetary policy; that is a problem. Some peoplethe anti-euro lobbyargue that that can be done only if we have a European government with a big central budget. That argument is mistaken and based on a false analogy with the United States. Europe and the United States have an entirely different set-up. In the United States, individual states have no resources for stabilisation. In many cases, they are under a constitutional duty to balance their budgets. Any automatic stabilisers must be federal.
A completely different position prevails in Europe, where there is hardly any central budget and it is the states that have the resources and the ability to provide stabilisation. That has been carefully considered and well set out in a classic OECD paper in 1996, paper No. 72 entitled Fiscal Relations Within the European Union.
Lastly, although it is not one of the most important problems and has been much overstated, let me mention unfunded pensions. I was recently rapporteur of a Federal Trust working party on the question of whether Europe can pay for its pensions. Broadly speaking, our conclusion was that it can; there is time for adjustment measures to be brought forward. What has been done recently in Germany and initiatives taken in Sweden show what can be done. Much is changing.
The most important issue is whether the actual age of retirement rises. As the OECD, and, indeed, an important report by Merrill Lynch, has shown, if the average retirement age in Europe were 64, there would be no problem about unfunded pensions. In the past year or two, after many years of decline, the actual retirement age in Europe has started to rise. That is a fact of great importance. It started to rise partly because measures have been taken to encourage it.
Let me turn to the opportunities that exist and mention three that I consider to be the most important. First, let us consider the impact on trade. One would expect in principle that the end of exchange rate uncertainty would boost trade. The evidence that that actually happens is now accumulating. A paper by Mr Rose showed that a country conducts three times as much trade with a country with which it shares a common currency as with other countries that are equidistant. A Canadian study has shown that a Canadian province trades 20 times more goods and services with another Canadian province as with an equidistant US statedespite the cultural affinities between Canada and the United States within the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Secondly, let us consider the impact on business organisation. In evidence to the Select Committee on the workings of the euro, Mr Trichet testified that he had not come across a single business inside the euro-zoneany major businessthat has any doubts about the beneficial effect of a single currency. Why should
Thirdly, there is the picture of foreign direct investment in the UK. The UK has many advantages and attracts a very large share of that investment. Those advantages would be enhanced if the UK was inside a single capital market. While there are still many obstacles to a single capital market, there is little doubt that the advent of the euro is accelerating the move towards it. So far foreign investment has held up well, but it takes time for any change of policy to be felt.
At the moment there is an assumption that we shall join the euro-zone. There are warnings by a number of very large manufacturers about what will happen if we do not. There are the first signs of a decline in foreign direct investment. Before the euro became effective, in the sense of the linking of the currencies, we attracted 28 per cent of the total foreign direct investment into the European Union. The latest figure from Ernst & Young indicates that the share has declined to 21 per cent.
I turn to what I regard as the keythe political future. On balance, I believe that the economic arguments, while not conclusive, will work out in favour of joining. They are not all one way. The political choice, however, is the most important factor. I believe that that is overwhelmingly in favour of taking a positive decision. Let us dismiss talk of a single superstate which the Xantis" love to trot out as the bogey. The French, the German Lander and a large number of other countries besides Britain do not favour a single superstate, and each of those states has a veto.
At issue is whether we play an important part, because it is likely that there will be closer co-operation and a greater degree of economic integration. Will we play an important part in developing the economic regulation and governance that the European Union needs and the kind of financial services pattern which will be decided in the next few years? Most important of all, as the European Union becomes more economically integrated through the euro it will increasingly speak with one voice, and it is right that it should. It is not healthy that the world should be dominated by one superpower, however friendly our relations with it may be; and it is economically undesirable that it should be so. Indeed, it is important for the euro-zone to speak with one voice.
However, in relation to the matter that we recently debated following the Statement it is also politically true that we in Europe should exercise a separate influence. Yes, it is right to support the United States in its fight against terrorism, but not if it abandons the fight for justice in Palestine or seeks to extend the conflict to Iraq. There are now some disturbing signs
Therefore, it is very important that we should maintain a strong European voice which produces a coalition not only against terrorism but also poverty, as the Prime Minister set out in his very imaginative vision for the future. In this Europe will play a vital part. It is really a matter of commonsensecertainly, this view is shared throughout the European Unionthat we cannot be at the heart of Europe and exercise influence if we remain outside its central project, which is to make a success of the single market through the single currency. That is the big issue which I believe the Prime Minister sees clearly, but it is not an issue which should be determined by a narrow Treasury interpretation of the five economic tests. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for giving us the opportunity to look again at the arguments for and against British participation in the euro. The Motion calls for the decision to be based on wider considerations than the five economic tests. The noble Lord explained what he meant by that in his most interesting speech.
There is inevitably a political dimension as well as an economic one to this historic decision. The fact that the Government are committed to holding a referendum on the subject means that the decision will be dragged into the wider political debate about our future relations with Europe. I believe that joining the euro must be first and foremost an economic decision. Ever since the days of Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann the new Europe has been built on the premise: get the economics right and the politics will follow. If the economic rationale of joining the euro were unfavourable no one would suggest that we should join for purely political reasons.
On the other hand, the economic arguments will never be acceptable to those who are politically opposed as a matter of principle to the European ideal. The politics and the economics are inevitably intertwined. Were we to adopt the euro clearly it would represent a further pooling of sovereignty with our European partners and strengthen our political commitment. If, on the other hand, we rejected the euro it would be seen as a political rejection of further European integration, would weaken our influence in Europe and could have long-term implications for our continued membership of the Union.
If it is true that approximately 30 per cent of the population are implacably opposed to further integration with Europe and approximately 30 per cent are positively in favour of it, it is the remaining 40 per cent who will determine the outcome of a referendum. I believe that they will need to be convinced by the economic arguments. The euro must sell itself to the British people, and up to now there is
It will be fascinating to watch how the changeover works in practice. Will there be huge problems of acceptability? Will price conversions be rounded upwards, with inflationary implications? How quickly will the benefits of cross-border travel and price transparency be realised by the consumer? For British citizens the process will be slower. Travellers to the Continent and Ireland will be the first to experience the euro, and it will certainly be appreciated by those who travel from one member state to another. But for the majority of the population it will have little direct impact. Their attitudes will be formed by our ever-fickle press and television.
If the Government are to win a referendum they must win the media battle in the months to come. They must convince the undecided 40 per cent that genuine economic benefits at the consumer level will flow from the macro-economic decision to join. This brings us back to the five economic tests. The Government must be more proactive and positive in their assessment of the tests, or at least three of them. The first twosustainable convergence and economic flexibilityare an economist's dream of Xon the one hand or the other" and to those involved can never be more than judgmental and subjective. The other three, however, are more amenable to genuine measurement.
Let me consider each of them briefly. First, will joining the single currency create better conditions for business to make long-term decisions to invest in the UK? Britain has already been the recipient of much the highest share of inward investment into the European Union. Our healthy economy, our language and our laws have contributed to that. But there is good evidence that decisions have been made, and will continue to be made, on the assumption that we shall join the single currency sooner or later. Were that understanding to reverse, or a referendum to be held and lost, the flow of inward investment could change rapidly to our disadvantage.
The next test is the impact that joining would have on the UK financial services industry. Much has been made of the ability of the City of London to be Europe's financial centre in or out of the single currency, although Paris and Frankfurt are stepping up the competition. But I think that there can be no doubt whatever that the City and our financial services industry would benefit hugely from membership in the long term.
A unified domestic capital market of 350 million people, rising to 500 million people, must help to reduce the cost of capital to industry. The bond market in the euro-zone totals 2.5 trillion euros compared with 1.7 trillion for the United States. A single capital market would free up UK pension funds to diversify and invest in a much wider domestic pool. The
The final test is whether joining the single currency would be good for employment. This test is closely linked to a positive reading of the inward investment and financial services tests. It is hard to see how such an enlarged domestic market could be anything other than positive for employment, certainly when compared with the negative impact that would inevitably follow a rejection of the single currency or a lost referendum.
There are of course wider considerations than the five economic tests, but I have tried to show that three out of the five tests are of vital importance if the Government are to persuade the 40 per cent of the population that remains undecided.
In granting independence to the Bank of England, we have taken the first step towards making our currency independent of political manipulation. Joining the euro-zone would carry that process one step further by eliminating the possibility of competitive devaluation among the European nations, which did so much damage in the last century. It would create a world-class reserve and trading currency to stand beside the dollar, the yen and probably the Chinese renminbi. Who knows, by the end of this century, there might be just one world currency.
Lord Thomas of Swynnerton: My Lords, I believe that I would be looked upon by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, as a Euro-creep; that is, I have consistently supported the idea of British involvement in the European Union ever since, during the 1950s, I used to hear the mellifluous tones of the late Lord Boothby telling the Cambridge Union of the benefits of the ideas of Monsieur Monnet and Monsieur Schuman. However, I do not claim that consistency is a good thing. It was described by the American philosopher Emerson as being the Xhobgoblin of the mediocre mind".
By that standard, it must be said that the two major parties in this country, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, have been brilliantly mercurial, and that is because there has been no hint of consistency in their positions over the past 50 years. The Conservative Party, which I joined in 1973, was the great party of Europe from 1960 to 1990. The Labour Party veered from scepticism and division in the 1960s and 1970s to hostility in the 1980s. Since 1990, both parties have changed 100 per cent. No greater or more extraordinary transformation has ever taken place in our long and equally extraordinary political history. The controversies of the Corn Laws, tariff reform and imperial preference, profound as they were in their time, cannot compare with the richness of these major and magnificent intellectual somersaults.
I find myself in virtual agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. I was particularly struck by his concluding remarks, although I was also impressed with what he said about trade and business organisation. I wish to make only two or three comments. The question of whether we enter the European Monetary Union surely is a matter of balancing the benefits of sovereignty and of power. Certainly, to accept a common currency is a surrender of sovereignty of a considerable kind. But if or, I hope I can say, when we join, we shall in fact increase our power because we shall then be able to participate in, to affect and perhaps to dictate the formation of policies on monetary matters by which we shall be affected, whether or not we are inside the palais d'Europe.
Along with the poet Marvell, I would say that sovereignty is a fine and private place, but in certain circumstances it can be extremely cold. All the nations of western Europe enjoyed sovereignty after 1918 and 1919, but that sovereignty did not help them at all when the storms of the 1930s and the 1940s came. Similar storms could affect us in the future. There is no reason to suppose why we should be insulated from such events. Indeed, we were not particularly insulated in the 1930s and the 1940s. That is one reason why I should like to see our entry into the monetary union as soon as possible.
I have two other points that I should like to make. First, the idea of standing outside the ballroom, pressing our noses against the glass to see whether the dance is going well and then saying that we would like to join in provided that the thing is a success, seems to represent the negation of statesmanship, although I think that that was the position taken by the former Foreign Secretary, now the Leader of the House in another place.
Secondly, to begin with, many people supported the UK joining and subscribing to the European experiment because it seemed to be a good substitute for empire. I suspect that I held that view myself. I do not say that, under the present circumstances, we can expect to lead Europe, but one day we could aspire to do so because we have so much to contribute. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, hinted at that, as did the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. Similarly, we benefit greatly from our close attachments to countries which now are not only allies or neighbours, but partners and intimate friends.
It would be foolish not to accept that membership of the monetary union will necessitate some psychological changes in the way in which we regard our arrangements, as well as political and economic affairs. We were not part of Hitler's empire, we were not part of Napoleon's empire, we were not subsidiary states to Louis XIV and we did not form a part of the Holy Roman Empire. But we were part of the Roman empire. Thomas Hardy wrote a famous and very fine poem about a person who finds a Roman coin, a Constantine, in Dorset in the 1920s. For that reason alone, on this occasion I adjure the
Lord Newby: My Lords, usually when we hold a debate on the euro and European matters, many speakers come forward from all the Benches in your Lordships' House. They clamour to make their points with great passion. Perhaps it would be instructive to begin my remarks by considering why it is that so few noble Lords are in the Chamber this evening. There may be a number of reasons, but two stand out. First, it is the evening of the concert of the Parliamentary Choir. It is to perform Bach's XChristmas Oratorio". Secondly, it is a crucial evening in the European Champions League. I can certainly bring to mind one or two noble Lords from the Government Benches who have more than a passing interest in the fate of Manchester United and Liverpool. Music and sport are two of the strongest strands of cultural life in this country; they are both European strands. They are two of the many strands of activity which bind us to Europe much more strongly than to any other part of the world. Music and sport bring together the whole of Europeeast and westjust as the EU, with its planned enlargement, will, within the foreseeable future, represent the whole of Europe and not only a fraction of the whole.
I raise these issues not because I believe that whether Manchester United get through to the next round of the European Champions League should be an additional test of whether we should join the euro, but because, when taken together, they demonstrate both the continuity and strength of the European cultural tradition and the rapid, fundamental institutional reform which is taking place within and across our continent at the moment. They form a useful, if somewhat unconventional, starting point to the three key issues that we are debating today.
The first issue requires us to take a step back from the euro and to ask ourselves what we wish our relationship with Europe to be; the second is whether our ever joining the euro is consistent with that role; and the third relates to the timing and the taking of the decision and the tests which will have to be passed before we do so. The first issueour role in Europeis relevant to the subsequent ones because it helps to set the overall political context within which the decision on euro membership has to be made.
We on these Benches believe straightforwardly that Britain should play a central, wholehearted role in the EU. We believe that it is in the interests of peace and prosperity in Europe that the EU as an institution thrives. We see enlargement as a means to end decades of division in Europe by the choice of free people who want to be part of a single European family.
We reject the pick-and-mix approach to the EU which dictates that we will decide which rules of the club we wish to follow and which rules we wish to ignore. We are self-confident enough to believe that a British contribution to all aspects of public policy
We believe that as the pressures on the EU to do more increasewhether on the environment, on defence or on securitywe need to have a European constitution which enshrines the principle of subsidiarity and sets limits on the roles and powers of the European level of government.
We believe that the single currency will be durable and beneficial to the European economy, and that we should be part of it as soon as it is prudent to be so. Finally, we believe that British influence on the development of economic policy, thinking and co-ordination within the EU is, and will continue to be, diminished as long as we remain outside the euro-zone.
If you believe these things, the issue of membership of the euro is a question of when and not whether. This gives a clear patch of waterwhether blue or yellow, I am not quite surebetween ourselves and Mr Duncan-Smith's Conservative Party. For us, it is a question essentially of when.
My noble friend Lord Taverne has rightly pointed out that many issues beyond the Government's five tests are relevant to the decision. I shall come to those in a moment. It is worthwhile, incidentally, recalling that when Barclays Capital carried out its euro-track summary, only 7 per cent of those currently opposed to membership of the euro, but who are open to changing their minds, said that they could change their minds as a result of an assessment of the Treasury's five economic tests. Perhaps the Treasury has not been as successful as it had hoped in explaining those tests.
As to the five tests, the first question is whether business cycles and economic structures are compatible. My noble friend Lord Taverne has mentioned the OECD report, which refers to growing convergence between the British and euro-zone economies, a convergence which most economists confidently expect to continue.
Secondly, there is the question of flexibility to deal with tax and employment problems. The flexibility that we have at present may be greater than elsewhere in Europe; certainly there is a considerable flexibility which we retain in both employment legislation and taxation. I shall come back to taxation later.
Thirdly, there is the question of investment in Britain. Much has been made of the fact that, in the first year of the existence of the euro, foreign direct investment into Britain increased rather than diminished. However, as my noble friend Lord Taverne pointed out, this trend seems to have gone into reverse. If the Government were not worried about this, they would not find themselvesas Mr Boateng did at the weekend when he met the South Koreanshaving to spend much of their time explaining that there is no need to worry about our non-membership of the euro, and giving reasons for it, rather than concentrating on the positive reasons why Britain is a good place in which to invest.
The fourth issue concerns the competitive position of the UK's financial services sector. The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, has made a powerful and convincing argument as to why, in the medium to long term, it is almost inconceivable that the UK financial services sector would be more prosperous outside a successful euro-zone than with Britain inside it.
The final question in regard to the five tests concerns growth, stability and a lasting increase in jobs. In terms of stability, if your major trading partner is locked into a currency, you immediately gain a stability in terms of decision-making by exporters which is completely lacking at the moment. The continuing problems faced by the manufacturing sector would simply not exist if a sensible exchange rate was successfully negotiated. The benefit of a larger market, to which the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, referred, is surely, to any logical mind, one which is likely to benefit the prospects for job creation in this country.
Some other issues go beyond the five economic tests which are clearly hugely important, both in determining the timing and in persuading people in the UK that joining the euro is sensible. First, there is the issue of the exchange rate. The current exchange rate is too high and monetary policy, because it is fixed on inflation primarily and fundamentally, can do nothing to address the problem. But, as my noble friend Lord Taverne explained, if the Government were to set a sensible target for sterling within the euro, there is every reason to believe that the markets would adjust to that target.
Secondly, it is argued by those who are opposed to euro membership that we could not possibly join an organisation with so much labour market inflexibility. Much is made of all kinds of Spanish practicesnot only in Spain but across the EUin respect of labour market regulation. However, when one looks across the EU, on any day a major debate is on-going about changing some aspect of past labour market rigidities. At the moment, the major focus is on Italy, where Berlusconi is trying to change some of the employment protection legislation in a manner which increases flexibility. It is very difficult to do. It was extremely difficult for the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when she attempted it in this country; it took a number of years to achieve. But all the evidence shows that, within the EU, political leaders are looking for windows of opportunity to move labour markets in a more flexible direction.
Thirdly, some people argue that the fiscal policy framework is too tight and that there needs to be greater scope for tax competition. Much of this argument is based on the misapprehension that there is some kind of Xhidden hand" of tax harmonisation preventing countries in the EU from choosing their own level of tax. Anyone who has brought cigarettes for their private use across the Channel knows very well that, at present, any thought of strict tax harmonisation is for the birds. There remains a considerable degree of flexibility within the EUas
The fourth reasonon which the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, has dwelt in the past, and perhaps will again in this debaterelates to the European Central Bank. The ECB does not operate like the Bank of England in every last respect. It does, however, have as its principal aim an almost identical aim to that of the Bank of England; namely, a low and stable level of inflation. Some of the methodology that it uses is slightly different in deciding how to achieve that. The index of prices that it uses is different from the one that we use. The way in which it explains, or does not explain, its decisions is different from the way in which we do. But no one in their right mind could argue that the European Central Bank has been a failure. No one would argue that, if Jean-Claude Trichet were the president of the European Central Bank instead of Wim Duisenberg, the transparency would not change. Frankly, no one would argue that, if the Bank of England had been part of the European Central Bank, many of the things that we find objectionable about it would never have been in place from the start. The European Central Bank is yet another example of a missed opportunity in setting a framework in which Britain could have played a major part.
Finally, people will look carefully at how the euro works in practice once the notes and coins are in circulation in the New Year. My guess is that the horror stories about little old ladies not being able to understand the new currency, and about counterfeiting, will prove to be exactly that, and will not be borne out.
Earlier today, I attended the euro preparation committee established by the Government, which unfortunately is boycotted by the Conservatives. We discussed with the Northern Ireland representative the effect of the introduction of the euro in Northern Irelandwhich will be affected because of its close proximity to a euro-zone member state. The view in the committee, both from the businessmen on one side of the table and from the Unionist politicians on the political side, was that within a short space of time the North of Ireland would in effect have a dual currency. The situation will be very different from the present one in which the punt operates a few miles across the border. Within this country, within months, we shall find a dual currency in operation. If it is successful there, and if we can exchange our euros at Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street for our pair of socks and our other purchases, the practical working success of the euro will be demonstrated and attitudes towards it will change considerably.
To return to football, this debate has been the equivalent of a relatively gentle Xfriendly". Nothing much is at stake other than a chance to pit our competing arguments against each other. On these Benches, we are looking forward to the real thing.
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