EC anger at currency traders

BRUSSELS - While the European Commission formally declined any comment on the state of the European Monetary System, there was increasing anger behind the scenes yesterday that the ideal of monetary union risks destruction at the hands of speculative traders, writes Sarah Lambert.

Privately EC officials complained that there were no fundamental economic reasons for the persistent attacks on the French franc.

'Traders are not renowned for their morals. They are just trying to beat the system,' one diplomat said.

The frustration is that at a time when the Maastricht treaty is being badly battered politically, attacks on the exchange rate mechanism add to the perception that monetary union is unattainable in the time frame envisaged by the treaty, throwing doubt on the economic credibility of 'ever closer union'.

The franc-mark link, reflecting the Franco-German axis on which the EC turns, underpins the ERM. If it is fatally weakened, so is the mechanism and with it the system that is the linchpin of European unity.

The efficiency of the single market depends on the creation of a single currency, and the political aspirations of the Maastricht treaty derive from the belief that a single currency requires greater political co-operation.

With Britain and Italy forced out of the ERM last autumn, any further defections would strain to breaking point the credibility of co-ordinated exchange rates. 'Whatever happens the franc will be protected because politically nobody can risk seeing it hobbled,' one EC official said.

Publicly politicians, with the exception of John Major, are happy to endorse the goal of economic and monetary union, if only because Brussels then becomes the scapegoat for the belt-tightening measures that governments would in any case have been forced to introduce.

But the 1 January 1994 deadline for the establishment of the European Monetary Institute - the embryonic EC central bank - is increasingly being called into question by even the Community's most senior monetary officials.