EMU first wave stake their claims

FRANCE, Germany and Italy will stake their claims to become founding members of the European single currency today when they submit data showing they have managed to scrape through the Maastricht treaty convergence tests.

With just 44 weeks to go before the launch, the official euro countdown begins today when claims from countries hoping to join in 1999, backed up by proof of sound finances in 1997, must be submitted to the European Commission.

After months of grappling with the German deficit, Theo Waigel, Bonn's finance minister, is expected to announce a 2.9 per cent deficit to GDP ratio for 1997 which to his great relief, comes within the 3 per cent ceiling allowed by Maastricht. Bonn's deficit will be higher than 1997 deficit outturns announced during the week by Spain and Portugal. The Spanish can boast a minor economic miracle with new figures showing the public deficit down to 2.6 per cent of GDP from 4.6 in 1996, while Portugal's is 2.5.

Even Italy, which has borne the brunt of German and Dutch criticism for slack financial housekeeping is expected to announce that it has brought it's deficit down to a creditable 2.8 per cent of GDP.

Eleven countries are bidding to join in the first wave, and if the forecasts for the last three to announce their 1997 data are borne out, then an 11-member Euro seems a certainty. This will fuel suspicions that widespread fudging has been employed to ensure that, on paper at any rate, convergence has been achieved.

The figures submitted today are the ones the Commission will assess to recommend Euro zone participants. Its report is due out on 25 March and heads of government will make their selection based on this recommendation on 2 May.

Yesterday the leader of Britain's biggest union warned that tens of thousands of jobs would be axed throughout Europe as the cost of the single currency. Addressing the leaders of 5 million public sector workers in London yesterday, Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of Unison, said the challenges faced by the euro were "immense and possibly insurmountable".

The warning came as industry and union leaders claimed that 23,000 British jobs would be lost because of the abolition of the duty-free system next summer.

Mr Bickerstaffe told delegates from 11 European Union countries that EMU was a "risky venture" and a "trip into the unknown". Unison's opposition to monetary union flies in the face of both Labour party and TUC policy. Mr Bickerstaffe said: "We know that the countries that go forward in the first wave will constitute something of a new elite group. That is why I assume within the Government there is still a great deal of debate and discussion."