Thanks to a Sun goal, it's 2-1 against EMU.. over to Ally in Vienna


Once in a while, you receive an offer you can only refuse. An American publisher suggested earlier this year that I achieve boundless fame and wealth by creating a European weekly magazine aimed at business people in the era of the single currency.

My reaction was what Americans themselves call a "no-brainer". Here is a market which it has taken the mighty Financial Times and Economist decades to prise open, and where any English-language news publisher is doomed to compete for advertising with the "international edition" of every American news daily, weekly, biweekly and monthly. The only kind of advertising that shows up is the corporate sort and there's nowhere near enough of that to go round.

In any case, at the precise moment of this offer, Andrew Neil was busily putting my no-brainer to the test and I could scarcely risk the charge of distracting him. Hired by the Barclay brothers, Neil relaunched the European in July 1997 with himself in editorial charge. His chosen format, super-A4 and printed on "improved newsprint", was the one established a decade ago by the Independent on Sunday review and since much copied. It looked on the news-stand like something which had fallen out of that day's Evening Standard.

In the event, I am relieved to find that the negative part of my brain is still in working order: issue 447 of the European, published this week, is its last. The circulation, claimed to be in excess of 200,000 just after its launch by Robert Maxwell in May 1990, had fallen to around 70,000. Neil is said to have got through a cool £20 million, though figures to do with the European invariably have a touch of Lycra in their weave. When the brokers put the paper on the block after Maxwell's death, its estimated value was £26.5 million. It fetched £2 million.

Maxwell's original idea of a single newspaper for Europe's newly federated citizenry had a certain hubristic magnificence, but it never looked like overcoming its mighty distribution and marketing costs. Under Neil, it sought to be "Europe's business weekly" - in effect a Euro-sceptic Economist, the paper where Neil began his career, but without the same depth, breadth or pagination. Only an Englishman or Andrew Neil could seriously imagine an army of Europeans, even one composed mainly of captains of industry, volunteering for a weekly thrashing about the insanities of the euro and the continent's unchecked slide into the abyss of uncompetitiveness. "The dollar," the paper typically scolded last May, "is the currency of Silicon Valley, the euro the money of subsidised coal mines."

It is, however, apt that the European should have folded in the week that Tony Blair finally summoned the courage to attack the reporting of Europe in the British press. A few days earlier, Chancellor Schroder had described the Sun as "ein richtige grosser schweinerei" - pigshit, for short.

The Sun greeted this with predictable satisfaction, denouncing Schroder for sinking "to the language of the gutter", where, presumably, he tripped over the headline writer who came up with "Foxtrot Oskar" as the paper's splash about Oskar Lafontaine on 2 December. The pigshit editorial concludes with the familiar message that the paper will fight to stop Britain joining the euro: "And we will win." According to a poll in the Guardian, the Sun is indeed winning, with the anti-EMU majority among the voters rising from 19 percentage points in September to 24 points this month (53 per cent against our joining, 29 per cent in favour).

If Blair is serious about hosing out this schweinerei, he will first need to put his own sty in order. One point the Prime Minister seems to find hard to grasp is that a press operation run by Alastair Campbell is both supremely skilled at the language and tactics of the tabloids and equivalently lacking in the sustained intelligence needed to drive a running theme through the broadsheets.

The style is to see everything as a football match or, occasionally, a boxing match. So, on the day Jack Straw consigned General Pinochet to extradition, the Mirror reported: "Freedom . . . 1, Despots . . . 0." The battle to reprieve duty-free at the Vienna summit became a tight contest, with the possibility of a penalty shoot-out. "Blair wins battle over duty-frees," the News of the World eventually proclaimed. Well done, Ally.

Bernard Ingham taught all this stuff to Margaret Thatcher, who reached for her handbag to defend "our rebate", a sum of money now inexplicably also a matter of life and death to Blair. Yet everyone knows the only sensible approach is to reshape the whole budget to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and then make it possible for the EU to extend its membership, building the base for its next zone of rapid economic growth.

A government addicted to populist rhetoric cannot hope to advance arguments like these. It is no good murmuring them in private, in the House of Commons - they have to become characteristic of the way the government sees the problem, of its body language as well as its reasoning. Equally, and here's the rub at its itchiest, no government which truly believes, with Andrew Neil's European, that the euro is the currency of a rusting industrial hulk can possibly make the argument with conviction.

Even the euro-friendly Peter Mandelson has been talking about the need for European business to be more like America's; just one more idle scrap of evidence that the Neil fallacy - that we have more to learn from the US than from, say, Germany - is alive and well in new Labour. Perhaps someone could explain, then, why Britain is so exercised about having to pay the fifth largest contribution to the EU budget, when our economic output per head ranks us only 11th. That's just below Everton, and they have a game in hand.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition