Racing Certainty

The euro's life began in doubt and has ended in crisis; thank god we never threw our pound into the pot

Counterpoints EU Europe

When Alice went to Euroland, she fell into a pool of tears. All sorts of creatures were swimming about in it, so, to get them dry, the Acronymic Emu proposed a caucus race. They ran round in circles for half an hour, until the Emu proclaimed: “Everybody has won, and all shall have prizes.”

The prize was, of course, the euro — the golden egg of European monetary union that the Emu was about to lay. They were all supposed to have qualified for it. Alice thought that no handicap could bring this ill-assorted field of ducks and drakes together and that the result was a fix. The Emu preferred to call it a vision.

Chronicling this race in the last years of the last century, I picked out the Italian lira as a dubious entry. Its trainers were known to cut corners, and in the trial event before this one — the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, as it was called — the lira had run out and carried the pound sterling with it. The form-book had something to tell us.

I had never wanted to enter the pound in this race, or in the earlier trial. The ERM, I said, could do nothing for us that we could not, if we chose, do for ourselves. It would merely subject us to policies which were designed by others and for others. One size would not fit all, any more than it has with the euro. All the same, our experience of the ERM served one useful purpose: it showed us how much better off we were outside it.

That experience made itself felt when Tony Blair tried to take us into the euro. He launched a mighty campaign, he made several false starts, received opinion was behind him — but he had promised a referendum, and he could never expect to call one and win it. Memories of Black Wednesday argued too strongly against him.

It is odd, all the same, that the opinion-formers all fell into line — the BBC, the Financial Times and the Economist, the big boardrooms (though the City dissented) and a thick cross-section of the political leadership. For those whose opinion differed they had harsh words: “A menagerie of has-beens, never-have-beens and looney tunes.” I missed the worst of this barrage, and was written off as someone who could not recognise the inevitable when he saw it coming. 

I could certainly see that the test of the euro would come in hard times, when the bubbles burst. Crowds might then form in the streets, and would resent being told that they must take their orders from Brussels and Frankfurt. The euro, I thought, would be vulnerable to a run on the banks of its weakest country. A central banker corrected me: the strongest country would get tired of paying. Perhaps we were both right. Alice felt certain that the Emu’s caucus race would end where it began: in tears.