LONDON

JANUARY 1 2009 16:35h

Euro Debate A `Red Herring`, British Minister Says

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The euro soared by over 30 percent against the pound in 2008, jumping sharply in December.

Debate over whether Britain should join the euro is a "red herring", a British minister said on Thursday, as a poll showed a large majority of Britons opposed signing up to the single European currency.

A leading member of the opposition Conservative Party, which leads the ruling Labour Party in opinion polls, said meanwhile that a Conservative government would "never" join the euro.

Asked how they would vote in a referendum, 71 percent of Britons questioned in an ICM poll said they would vote to keep the pound, while 23 percent would vote to join the euro.

The pollsters said the proportion of voters supporting euro membership was the same as they recorded in a survey in April, before the worst impact of the credit crunch hit.

The telephone poll of 1,000 adults, carried out between Dec. 19 and 21, was commissioned by BBC Radio 4's "The World at One". "This poll reaffirms what we've been saying ... The debate around the euro is a red herring at this time. The issue is financial stability and packages for growth," Britain's Europe Minister Caroline Flint told the same programme.

The question of Britain abandoning the pound for the euro was "a non-debate at this present time", she said on the day that Slovakia became the 16th country to adopt the euro and the single European currency marked its 10th birthday. The pound's slump to near parity with the euro as the British economy staggers towards recession has revived talk about euro membership in some quarters although for exporters at least, a weaker currency is a boon in tough times.

The euro soared by over 30 percent against the pound in 2008, jumping sharply in December.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso fuelled speculation in November by saying that some key British figures were beginning to think about adopting the single currency.

The British government said it had not changed position.

The BBC poll showed the weakness of sterling has had little effect on British voters' opinions.

Only 15 percent of those questioned said the pound's fall over the last three months made them more inclined to join the single currency. Sixty-nine percent said it made no difference and 14 percent said it made them less inclined to join.

In an interview with the Daily Mail newspaper, Conservative foreign policy spokesman William Hague appeared to go further than the party had done previously by saying that a Conservative government would never sign up to join the single currency.

"We would never join the euro," he said and was also quoted as saying that "the idea of abandoning your currency when it has lost a lot of its value is a pretty stupid one".