BUSINESS

Pressure mounts on Britain to accept euro

LONDON DEC. 27.With just four days to go for the euro to become a reality in 12 European countries, pressure has started to build on British businesses also to accept the new currency from January 1, and on Thursday the Foreign Office Minister, Mr. Peter Hain, provoked the ire of eurosceptics when he called for dual pricing saying it would have a "profound impact'' on familiarising Britons with the single currency.

In remarks, which the Tories denounced as an attempt to bring in the euro through the backdoor, Mr. Hain catalogued the "practical benefits'' of giving people the option to pay in the euro which, he said, would become a "part of daily life'' for millions of people from next week. "Instead of the euro being a source of puzzlement, mystery and fear, it is going to be part of daily life for people who travel abroad and encounter it on their own high streets,'' he said.

Arguing that it would make British businesses more competitive and encourage Europeans to spend more of their euros in Britain, he said, "If it encourages a French family to come here and shop in a British town or city because they use the same money, I think we should be supporting that, regardless of whether we are in our out of it.''

His comments, in an interview to The Independent, came even as a number of major stores such as Marks and Spencer, Dixons, Bhs and Debenhams announced that they would be accepting euros and the Liberal Democrats' leader Mr. Charles Kennedy said he expected a lot of eurosceptics to change their minds once the euro notes and coins began circulating in large parts of Europe.

"They will soon begin to see that they are losing out financially if they are having to do endless currency transactions. They will also be going into shops and supermarkets in Britain where provision will have been made for accommodating the euro and they will begin to think about it,'' he said in an interview to an American website.

As pro-euro groups mounted pressure, the Tories accused the government of trying to push Britain into single currency by "stealth.'' "The Government should have the courage to call a referendum and stop trying to dupe the people into joining the euro,'' a spokesman said.

Mr. Hain, however, played down speculation over an early referendum and said the only date people should think about was June 6, 2003 _ the deadline for the Chancellor Mr. Gordon Brown to complete his assessment of five economic tests for Britain's entry into the single currency. The tests would determine whether it is economically viable for the country to give up the pound. Mr. Brown does not share the Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair's enthusiasm for the single currency, and observers were quick to point out that Mr. Hain's call for business to embrace the euro even before it is formally introduced was not echoed by the Treasury.

"Unlike Mr. Hain, the Treasury is reluctant to discuss whether British shops and businesses should accept euro notes and coins even though it (rather than the foreign office) is responsible for the currency,'' The Independent said.

Even among the largely europhobic Tories, there are deep divisions on the issue with several leading figures such as the former chancellor Mr. Kenneth Clarke and the former deputy prime minister Mr. Michael Heseltine being strongly in favour of a single currency.

Despite the Tories' claim that the majority of Britons is opposed to single currency, the party was decisively rejected in the last general election which it contested on a "save the pound'' campaign.