Britain pushes for economic reform in Europe

  • Business
  • Wednesday, 14 May 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - Britain urged other European Union nations to speed up economic reforms, saying that would boost support for the EU in Britain where a skeptical public may soon be asked to vote on adopting the euro currency. 

"Our agenda for economic reform can unite Europe and public opinion in Britain to help build up a lasting national consensus for the pro-European cause,'' British Treasury chief Gordon Brown said Tuesday. 

Brown dodged questions about whether he will recommend that Britain replace the pound with the euro when he reports to parliament on the issue by the first week in June. 

"You'll have to wait until the ... assessment is made to the House of Commons,'' he told reporters at a meeting of EU finance ministers. 

The British government says it supports euro-zone membership in principle and Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly wants to call a referendum on the issue before the next election, due by 2006. 

However, that depends on Brown's economic assessment on the impact of membership.With the country gripped by a vociferous debate over the euro, recent opinion polls show Britons about 3 to 1 in favor of keeping the pound.  

Sweden votes on adopting the common currency Sept. 14. Denmark, the other EU nation not in the currency bloc, voted against joining in 2000. 

Brown said economic reforms were also needed to pull the European economy out of the doldrums. 

"With 15 million Europeans unemployed, all of us that are pro-European ... must unite around an agenda of reform,'' he said. 

Germany, France and Italy, the three biggest economies in the 12-nation euro zone, are all struggling with economic growth below or barely over 1 percent, while pension and welfare bills push their budget deficits above the EU's limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product. 

All 15 EU ministers agreed to give priority to reforming pensions, increasing labor market flexibility and investment in research. 

However, change is not proving easy.As ministers met in Brussels, France was paralyzed by a nationwide transport strike Tuesday against planned pension changes. 

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's proposals for cuts in unemployment benefits and a loosening of job protection have run into bitter resistance from labor unions and members of his own center-left coalition. 

Italian labor reform plans sparked the nation's first general strike in decades. 

EU ministers welcomed support for the strong euro, which has risen close to record highs against the U.S. dollar in recent days. - AP 

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