Excluded countries hurry to join euro

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The Independent Online
A WEEK after the launch of the euro, two of the four EU "outs", Denmark and Sweden, are sending clear signals of their desire to sign up to the single currency as soon as possible - which would leave Britain in the sole company of Greece outside the new system.

In Denmark, which is traditionally Eurosceptic, successive opinion polls since November have produced clear majorities in favour of joining. The most recent, on Thursday, showed 50 per cent of the public in favour of membership, with 32 per cent opposed and 16 per cent undecided.

The survey follows a powerful endorsement of the euro by the Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, and a prediction by the Economy Minister, Marianne Jelved, that growing public support would allow the referendum required to approve membership to be held well before 2001, previously considered the earliest possible date.

Thus Denmark could enter the system well before euro notes and coins replace national currencies in mid-2002.

The reasons for Denmark's apparent conversion are the smooth debut of the single currency, after months during which the euro had showed its worth as a shield against global currency turbulence, and the growing fear that the country simply could not afford to sit on the sidelines.

In Sweden, such arguments resonate even more strongly. The moment of truth came in high summer, as the Asian crisis followed by financial meltdown in Russia threatened to turn Nordic financial markets inside out. In the event, Sweden (as well as Norway, which is not an EU member) took a buffeting. But not neighbouring Finland, despite its common border and long historical associations with the former Soviet Union.

In both Scandinavian countries, as in Britain, industry is strongly in favour of the euro. Like Britain, both Denmark and Sweden easily meet the economic qualifications for membership. But unlike Britain, fears over being marginalised in Europe now outweigh reluctance to make the surrender of national sovereignty implicit in the euro.

Thus, in contrast to Tony Blair, the Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson has just called for an early decision by his ruling Social Democrat party on whether to join the single currency.

This could come at a special party congress early next year, opening the way for a national referendum to approve entry later in 2000.

If Denmark and Sweden enter, only Britain and Greece would be left out by the time euro notes and coins are circulating. By then Greece, too, could be on the point of joining.