Britain shrugs at new invader: the euro

Looking out across the famous White Cliffs from 12th-century Dover Castle, you can see the French coast, even on a murky day.

But it seems that to many who live in this English port city, the country 21 miles away across the English Channel could be on the other side of the planet.

Outside Pipp's fish-and-chips shop on Dover's main street, mention of the single currency that France and 10 other European countries will embrace on Jan. 1 provokes mild hostility and poorly disguised ignorance.

Asked when he expected to see his first euro note, a blue-collar worker says, "Probably on New Year's Day." Told that single-currency notes and coins are not due to circulate for another two years, he mutters, "That's a mercy."

Nationwide opinion polls show that about 60 percent of British adults are opposed or indifferent to the euro.

"We'll face the problem when it arrives," says a mother, a packet of cod and chips in one hand and her eight-year-old son hanging on to the other. "I can't see why we British should have to give up the pound."

In Dover, says David Shaw, the area's former Conservative member of Parliament, attitudes to "things European" tend to be "especially guarded."

Reminded that the city is often called the "gateway to Europe," he responds, "But it's also the gateway from Europe, and there's a long history of invasion going back 2,000 years to Roman times.

"Dover Castle is only one of several fortified castles along the coast," he says. "This was Britain's central defense point for 1,000 years. The castles were built to repel the nasty Europeans, notably the French."

Such attitudes may seem strange in a port that offers a busy panorama of cross-channel superferries carrying passengers and their cars between England and France. But Graham Tutthill, for more than 30 years chief reporter of the Dover Mercury, has an explanation: "These days a lot of people here, when they think of Europe, think of the 1,000 or more asylum-seekers from Bosnia, Slovakia, and other places who arrived recently and are still living in Dover."

"They've caused great local resentment. The question of the euro gets mixed up with all that," Mr. Tutthill says.

ELSEWHERE in Britain, hostility to the euro is getting better organized. Its opponents sense that Prime Minister Tony Blair is warming to the idea of the single currency and appears likely to press for its adoption through a referendum early in the new millennium.

In mid-December, opponents of joining the single European currency gathered in London to form the Congress for Democracy, with members from Britain's main political parties, trade unions, and environmental groups.

They issued a declaration warning that adoption of the euro would give power over British interest rates, exchange rates, and taxes to unelected European institutions.

Lord Shore, a former senior Labour Cabinet minister, told the meeting, "This is a great national issue. It's about who governs Britain."

There is also patriotic nostalgia at the root of British attitudes toward the euro.

At the White Cliffs Experience, a museum about Dover's past, the main exhibit recalls the port's four-year hammering by German bombs and shells during World War II. "Dover was a front-line town," the commentary intones.

A wartime newsreel shows thousands of British soldiers, evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, straggling through Dover streets after invading Nazi tanks pressed on to the French coast. Dunkirk is yet another reason, the film seems to imply, for the brave, battered British to remain cool toward foreigners.

Mr. Shaw, the former Conservative MP, thinks one of the main factors that will change attitudes to Europe, and perhaps to the euro, is the number of Britons who frequently head for France to do their shopping. Some crowd onto ferries for the 90-minute crossing. Others take a 35-minute train through the Channel Tunnel to Calais, Dover's French sister port.

Shaw says clothes, groceries, and restaurant meals tend to be a good deal cheaper in France than in Britain. He notes that Britons spend an average of 200 ($335) per visit to Calais and account for one-third of the town's trading.

"With so many people now going to France," Shaw says, "attitudes are certain to change, even though change will come slowly." He adds, "Though most people in Dover don't realize it, when visitors from the single-currency zone begin arriving in the new year, the bank notes they'll bring with them will technically be euros, even though they'll look like francs and other national currencies."

Shaw says, "Shopkeepers will soon discover that no matter what it's called, it's all money, and I can't see them complaining."

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