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First eleven vie for euro places

THOSE countries which want to join the single currency when it launches next year submitted their bona fides last week, seeking to prove that they are fit and tough enough to make the grade.

Eleven of the 15 EU countries are expected to come within the tough criteria that were set down in the Maastricht treaty, to be confirmed this month and officially endorsed in May.

All of which is now being treated as though it were perfectly normal. But it is worth remembering just how recently the very idea of a single currency still seemed the stuff of fantasy.

Commentators repeatedly argued in recent years that the project was doomed, and that it would be impossible for France and others to meet the Maastricht criteria. As for Italy, it seemed to be way off the scale. Even now, sceptics suggest that Italy has wriggled under the wire only by dint of fudging the figures on a one-off basis. Officials in Brussels insist, however, that this is more than just creative accounting. The net effect of lax judgement would, they say, be counter- productive, since the markets would lose faith in the project itself. The European Commission insists that a yes-vote for a given country must be taken as a genuine mark of confidence.

Britain has stood on the sidelines throughout. Chancellor Helmut Kohl believed passionately in the project - and argued that sceptical voters would eventually come round. The Italian government was ready to introduce painful changes, in order to make the economics work. In Britain, under both Conservative and Labour alike, the view has been worse than confused.

British officials in Brussels assume that the UK, too, will sign up for the single currency in due course. But, as ever, it will be late. The government holds the EU presidency; but it is not centre stage.