Brittan berates the EMU Jeremiahs

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Political Correspondent

Sir Leon Brittan, vice-president of the European Commission, today makes a strong attack on former Cabinet colleagues for suggesting that a European single currency might be postponed or never happen.

Writing in today's Independent Sir Leon, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, firmly disputes predictions that the project will collapse - an idea that Cabinet ministers have conspicuously invoked in a attempt to reassure Tory Euro-sceptics and restore a semblance of party unity.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, has been quick to seize on the suggestion of a growing gap between economic realities and the planned 1999 timetable for monetary union. John Major has also played down the prospect of the timetable being met.

Sir Leon in effect dubs them "wishful thinkers". British industrialists and citizens were being told "we do not need to think about it any more, for the deadline and the terms are unravelling, just as the British always said they would," he says.

Yet most EU foreign ministers officially re-endorsed the plan to begin EMU on 1 January 1999, and according to the economic criteria in the Maastricht Treaty, at their meeting on Monday.

"It is consoling to be told that you not need to answer a difficult question but it can be dangerous to duck out of it that way," he says. "Sound policy- making requires a much less self-serving view of what is really happening in Europe."

Sir Leon's warning will not only reassure increasingly exasperated pro- European Tories. It will also strike a chord with a number of senior Tory backbench Euro-sceptics who are far from convinced that EMU is unravelling and believe predictions to that effect are dangerous. Kenneth Clarke, the strongly pro-European Chancellor, insisted in an interview earlier this week that nobody knew whether the currency would go ahead on 1 January 1999. He also slapped down suggestions from Cabinet colleagues that some states wanted to water down the economic criteria.

The contributions from Mr Clarke and Sir Leon stand in marked contrast to Mr Rifkind's strident remarks at a Brussels press conference during Monday's meeting, when he said: "Each day almost, senior European statesmen from France, from Germany, from other countries express doubt or uncertainty as to whether 1999 is a realistic target. I doubt if this can go on day after day, week after week, without some serious credibility problem."

Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary, has also called for a postponement of moves towards the currency, saying that the present timetable could cause damage to the EU.

Sir Leon suggests some countries would welcome a short delay, but only because they wish to join at the outset rather than in a second wave.

"Yet even they are enacting bold economic reforms to show they mean to qualify for participation at the earliest possible date . . . Those reforms are in any case necessary for Europe to be competitive."

Sir Leon Brittan, page 19