Jolt for EU single currency plans

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The Independent Online
The European Union's plans to form a single currency were rocked yesterday by the worst public dispute this year over which countries should join it and under what conditions.

The President of the Commission, Jacques Santer, rebuked Germany's finance minister, Theo Waigel, for attempting to unpick decisions on how strictly countries should control public spending when their currencies are merged.

At the same time, Italy's government was furious that Mr Waigel had told a closed parliamentary hearing in Bonn that Italian finances were in such poor shape that the lira would not qualify for monetary union by 1999, the planned launch date. The lira plunged on foreign exchange markets and Italian commentators accused Germany of throwing its weight around in Europe.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, meanwhile, went out of his way to placate Tory Euro-sceptics by pledging more "internationalism" in British foreign policy, including closer links to the United States and the growing economies of Asia. Making what he called "a cool assessment of British interests", Mr Rifkind dismissed the possibility of a common European foreign and security policy "in the foreseeable future". The shadow Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, accused Mr Rif-kind of seeking to put Britain at "the margins of Europe".

Mr Rifkind's words will disappoint other EU leaders as they gather in Majorca today for a mini-summit to discuss the strengthening and reform of European institutions. But the meeting is likely to be far more exercised by the gathering continental row over the conditions for a single currency.

A member of the council of the German national bank, the Bundesbank, fuelled the dispute by suggesting that France - Germany's principal partner in the EMU project - was among those countries that needed greater budget discipline. Mr Waigel also incurred the wrath of Belgium for suggesting that Belgian public debts were so high that the country would find it difficult to meet the entry conditions in time.

Economists said the row had raised doubts over the strength of Germany's political commitment to the early introduction of a single currency. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's centre-right government insists publicly that it wants monetary union by 1999, but opinion polls show a majority of Germans fearful of sacrificing the Deutschmark. Mr Waigel has tried to calm German nerves by saying his government will insist on stricter discipline on budget deficits and public debts than those laid down in the Maastricht treaty.

It is this apparent attempt to shift the goalposts that has put him at odds with the commission and some EU governments. German officials have also annoyed the commission by stating they do not think it wise to call the single currency the Ecu, because the existing Ecu - a weighted average of EU currencies - has lost value against the mark over the years.

EMU in trouble; Rifkind speech, page 10

Leading article, page 16