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Gary Younge
My five tests for the euro

The five economic tests that Britain must pass before joining the euro have never been particularly convincing. Since Brown both laid down the criteria for them and will judge whether or not they have been met, it is a bit like students sitting an exam in which they have written the questions and will mark the paper. Anyone who doesn't pass under those circumstances must have far greater problems than the subject matter could ever pose.

Moreover Brown's tests suggest there is an objective response, rooted in science, to what we all know to be a subjective issue borne of political opinion. Like Deep Thought, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who insists the answer to the "question of Life, the Universe and Everything" is "42", they suggest clarity but in fact deliver confusion

For, in a sense, there is an obvious answer to the question: when will we apply to join the eurozone? It will happen when the British government thinks it has the best chance of winning a referendum. Not that Brown's guidelines are irrelevant. There is an economic case for and against the euro. His five "tests" - convergence, flexibility, investment, the City and whether EMU will be good for Britain overall - will probably play a part. But they will not be decisive: the determining factor will be political.

That is as it should be. For the euro is essentially a political project. The trouble is it is not a particularly democratic one. None of the citizens who are in the eurozone have had a chance to vote specifically on whether they wanted to abandon their national currency. The only country that did - Denmark - voted No.

Instead of five vague economic tests we should establish five concrete, democratic tests which should be met before the question is put. Unlike Brown's guidelines these should be based not on the prevailing winds of the polls but on the fixed principles that wherever power is exercised there should be accountability and wherever decisions are made there should be transparency.

1) The institutions which govern the Europe Union and therefore ultimately the euro must be accountable and transparent. The European parliament, the only directly elected component of the EU, must have the full democratic powers of a legislative chamber. The parliament cannot, at present, initiate legislation on its own. While its powers have been increased in recent times to allow for shared decision-making in certain areas, it has little influence on the decisions of most importance to national governments.

2) The parliament must appoint the head of the European Central Bank and he or she must be accountable to it. At present the head of the bank is appointed by the common accord of the governments of the member states. Wim Duisenberg, the current president of the ECB, appears at hearings before the European parliament but the parliament has absolutely no power over him. The rest of the executive board were appointed "from among persons of recognised standing and professional experience in monetary or banking matters" in a similar way.

3) The ECB must operate transparently. At present it meets virtually in secret, publishing neither the minutes of its meetings nor its voting record.

4) The parliament must set the targets and define the economic parameters within which the ECB works. At present the ECB sets its own inflation target which in turn determines its monetary policy. This means there is no democratic input into one of the key components of economic policy.

5) The president of the commission should be elected by the parliament. The commission, the EU's main policy manager, must be made democratically accountable. After his appointment the current commission president, Romano Prodi, said the commission would work as "a European government" and he would be like a "European prime minister". All that without a single vote cast.

Here lie the demands of a genuine eurosceptic. For I am sceptical about Britain joining the European currency, but no more than that. If all the demands were met I would have no problem supporting a Yes campaign. The euro is not a point of principle for me. Quite how you develop a principle about something as functional as a currency, one way or another, I am not sure. Currency, after all, is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Whether it is the pound, euro, krone or dollar - it is their relationship to other things that make them valuable.

But democracy is a notion I still hold dear. I am unhappy at the way bankers, bureaucrats and corporate busybodies keep taking it away from me; annoyed when elected officials nonchalantly relinquish it; and determined not to cede what is left without a fight. I have no intention of handing it over to someone I cannot get rid of, who is making decisions on the basis of criteria I cannot influence, in meetings which I cannot be fully informed about. If Britain is serious about joining the euro it should use whatever leverage it has now to make those changes happen.

Without them, today's comprehensive spending review might not even be possible. Brown has taken a calculated and welcome risk to inject more funds into education, health and overseas aid. That, arguably, was what he was elected to do. Last week, a new Portuguese government turned itself in to the commission because the outgoing administration had spent too much. Having exceeded a 3% budget deficit laid down by the commission, it now faces fines. The elected must now wait to see whether and how they will be reprimanded by the appointed. Once we join the euro, Brown will have only one eye on the electorate. The other will be on Frankfurt. The ECB this week warned elected governments that "fiscal targets had to be based on realistic growth assumptions" and warned them against "slippage" in interpreting rules. Assurances that democratic reforms might take place after we join are simply not good enough.

Power concedes nothing. What incentive would there be for the ECB to democratise itself after we had joined? And what recourse would we have if it did not? The obvious riposte is that we do not enjoy many of these rights in the UK. With our monarchy, the House of Lords and an independent central bank, and without a constitution, we have huge pockets of unelected power. But then nobody is asking us to join the UK. If there was a referendum I would demand more democracy. If it was not forthcoming, I would vote No to that too.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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