EU to examine early launch of euro coins

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PLANS TO introduce euro notes and coins ahead of schedule engulfed the new currency in fresh controversy last night. European finance ministers called for a study of the proposals despite several protests.

The idea, put forward at a meeting in Brussels, reflects growing confidence in European capitals at the success of the launch of the euro and its popular acceptance.

However, the plan provoked widespread opposition including from the German Finance Minister, Oskar Lafontaine, who hinted that the idea might complicate the prospect of Britain's entry into monetary union.

After the euro's launch on 1 January, the 11 participating countries have until January 2002 to prepare for the introduction of notes and coins.

Yesterday the Belgian Finance Minister, Jean-Jacques Viseur, called on fellow finance ministers to "give a signal to our population of our willingness to make the euro an everyday reality as quickly as possible".

He added that the time lag between the euro's birth and the introduction of notes and coins was like a "business launching a new product but the product only being available in three years' time".

Mr Viseur was backed by Luxembourg's Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, who argued: "There is momentum behind this but we should not ignore that a procedure has been decided and that the business community is considering the decisions we have taken. But if it were possible we would certainly support it."

Other countries expressed an interest in the plan, including Ireland and Austria, but several finance ministers came out in opposition.

Gerrit Zalm, the Dutch Finance Minister, described Mr Viseur's plan as "an impossibility", adding that it would be "asking for trouble" to tamper with a clearly enshrined timetable. Mr Zalm argued that early introduction of the 30 billion euro bank notes might be feasible, but it would be very difficult to circulate 50 billion coins ahead of schedule.

In a newspaper interview the European commissioner for monetary affairs, Yves-Thibault de Silguy, said that if the political will among the 11 participating countries was there "then the European Commission would quickly initiate the necessary legal steps and draw up a proposal". Later he played down the prospect of an agreement to bring forward the date but added that the Commission would have "a final check on the situation".

Mr Lafontaine, who chaired the meeting, said he saw little point in "reopening the discussion of dates at such short notice - think about countries which might want to join in the future".

Any change in the timetable would be a complication for pro-Europeans in Britain who hope the UK could join the single currency at about the same time that notes and coins are introduced, and who also expect a referendum will take place after the next general election.

There was also some confusion about the Belgian plan with Mr Viseur, who had previously called for the introduction of notes and coins one year early, arguing yesterday that this might now take place only a matter of months ahead of schedule.

Mr Lafontaine, who yesterday outlined Germany's agenda on economic policy for its current presidency of the EU, jokingly referred to his bogeyman reputation in Britain. He said: "As the most dangerous man in Europe I'm also bound to know that Germany has the lowest real corporate tax rates in Europe." His agenda, which stressed the need for closer political and economic integration in Europe, offered little comfort to the British government, which faces attacks from the Eurosceptic press.

Meanwhile, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, launched his initiative yesterday to help to clean up fraud and financial abuse by suggesting the appointment of an independent investigator who would report to the finance ministers and to the European parliament.