OPINION: Political Campaigning - Euro campaigners are still sitting on the fence/Despite the high-profile launch of Britain in Europe last week, campaigners on both sides are still reluctant to openly support or condemn the euro

As the dust settles on the party conference season, the euro has emerged as a battleground for political point-scoring. Last Thursday, Tony Blair fronted the launch of Britain in Europe - a group originally set up to push for a referendum on the euro, but which last week launched a more general campaign to promote Britain’s role in Europe.

As the dust settles on the party conference season, the euro has

emerged as a battleground for political point-scoring. Last Thursday,

Tony Blair fronted the launch of Britain in Europe - a group originally

set up to push for a referendum on the euro, but which last week

launched a more general campaign to promote Britain’s role in

Europe.



Meanwhile, Tory leader William Hague has renewed demands for a

renegotiation of the treaties that allow member states to opt out of EU

legislation.



In addition, Hague is rumoured to be starting a ’Save the Pound’ tour

around the country.



While some senior Tories, such as former prime minister John Major, have

gone on record to dub Hague’s Eurosceptic position an election loser,

others have dealt him a more bitter blow.



Last week, in an extraordinary display of cross-party unity, Blair

shared the Britain in Europe forum with some of the Conservative Party’s

most senior and respected figures.



In what Blair described as a ’patriotic alliance’, former deputy prime

minister Michael Heseltine and erstwhile chancellor Kenneth Clarke

flanked him on the launch platform, alongside new Liberal Democrat

leader Charles Kennedy.



The campaign for Britain in Europe has suffered many false starts and

was originally conceived to win public support for the single

currency.



However, in what critics view as a cynical attempt to make its stance

more publicly palatable, for now the campaign will concentrate on

rebuilding confidence in the European project in general.



In addition, to capitalise on the suspicion that Hague is becoming

increasingly xenophobic - something he hotly denies - Britain in Europe

is contesting any proposal to pull out of Europe altogether.



But campaign director Simon Buckby remains defiant in the face of

charges of watering down. ’The campaign has repositioned and I am proud

of that,’ he says. ’It has genuinely delivered a cross-party coalition

not seen in this country for a quarter of a century.’



The group is expanding its media relations and grass-roots campaigning

team and plans to maximise its network of activists. In part, this is to

counteract the grassroots activities of Business for Sterling, the

leading non-political campaign against the single currency which has the

support of the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of

Directors.



’We’ve established a national network of press offices across Wales and

England and from next year, we will be moving into Scotland,’ says

Business in Sterling campaign manager Alex Hickman. ’We don’t want to be

seen as just a bunch of suits in London, so we’ve been working with

locally-respected business people who share our aims and really

understand the issues.’



Business for Sterling has appointed agencies such as City Press PR in

Manchester to run regional press offices. On top of this, it has used

regional and national advertising to state its position that, for the

foreseeable future, Britain’s best interests are served by staying out

of the euro.



To ensure it is not seen as simply right wing, the campaign team has

been working to promote the profiles of its centre and centre-left

supporters, such as Labour backbencher Frank Field. In addition, it has

been working closely with New Europe, the cross-party political

organisation against the single currency chaired by Lord Owen.



On 23 June, the two organisations held a conference, Advantage Britain,

at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London. Speakers ranged

from Tim Melville-Ross, the director general of the Institute of

Directors, to Moz Greenshields, a member of the national executive

committee of Unison.



New Europe has also been promoting its cause at party conferences. It

launched a book of essays, Everything you always wanted to know about

the euro, but were afraid to ask a Tory, at Labour’s Bournemouth

gathering, and organised a fringe meeting at the Green Party

conference.



The battle for Europe will also be fought on the internet. Hickman says:

’We are building up a really good presence on the web, which is

especially important for talking with the business community.’ Visitors

to www.bfors.com can see a video interview with Business for Sterling

chief executive Nick Herbert and a film features supporters including

Belgo chief Luke Johnson.



The irony is that, despite all the posturing, there is a broadish

consensus.



Nobody is prepared to fully commit to the euro, and even the Tories have

not totally ruled it out in the long term. In principle, all sides are

also in favour of a public consultation. It is just a question of

when.



’The problem is that Gordon Brown wants to win the next election on the

economy and Blair wants to keep his options open,’ says Times political

commentator Peter Riddell. ’My opinion is that in the campaign for the

next election, Blair will have to be more definite about the

timing.’



When Michael Portillo and Business for Sterling chairman Rodney Leach go

head-to-head with Lord Marshall of British Airways and Charles Kennedy

at next month’s CBI national conference, it will be interesting to see

what they are actually prepared to dispute in a public forum.



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