Comment: Bending the rules of the Maastricht game

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Bending the rules of the Maastricht game

Why is something that is perfectly obvious to the French so hard for many of the British to get their minds around?

France is going to have a little difficulty meeting the rules for joining the single currency laid down in the Maastricht Treaty. Its government deficit is too big. The forthcoming budget will therefore try to rein in spending. But, as a little extra insurance, the French government has arranged for an extra injection of funds.

The terms of the deal with France Telecom almost certainly do not meet the spirit of the Maastricht Treaty. In a company, it would be called creative accounting of the worst sort. But the EU Commission will almost certainly give it the go-ahead. The French are consummate Brussels insiders; there can be little doubt that they will get the re-interpretation of the Maastricht rules they want. A way will also be found to accommodate Ireland, which looks as if it will miss at least one of the Maastricht criteria. It seems that provided you are committed, the rules don't much matter.

The British, by contrast, see rules as rules. Or at least, politicians and officials seem to. The eminent industrialists who have complained that Euro-scepticism threatens the UK's competitive position have understood that the single currency is still under negotiation. The rules are still fluid for they have not yet properly been set. There is no need to take them or leave them.

The possibility that Target, the payment system for euros, will exclude London banks, illustrates the point. The Bank of England's negotiating position has been weakened by the French and German perception that Britain is not engaged in a serious dialogue about the form monetary union will take. So it will take a form unhelpful to the City.

Unless John Major does the inconceivable and backs his Euro-phile Chancellor, his government will have lost the chance to mould the single currency. After the election it will be too late to give EMU a British as opposed to a Gallic or Germanic shape. If eventually we are forced to join it, as seems all too possible, it will be like the common market - on someone else's terms.

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