Launch Of The Euro: View From Brussels: Europe on a high, Britain still low key

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OUTSIDE THE Union Jack was fluttering, but inside the Council of Ministers building in Brussels, Britain's briefing room had been turned into a makeshift TV set, complete with make-up facilities. With no Treasury minister attending there was, explained one official, little prospect of the UK having anything very much to say.

History was in the making and the British presence was deliberately minimalist. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, elected not to join the gathering of finance ministers, leaving the job of representing the UK to the British ambassador to the EU, Sir Stephen Wall.

According to the Treasury, the Chancellor stayed away because the meeting was purely "procedural". But Britain was alone among the 15 EU member states to be represented by its ambassador.

By contrast Denmark, Sweden and Greece, which are also staying out of the first wave, sent ministers, two of whom joined the rhetorical euphoria and outlined ambitions to join the euro.

Not that Mr Brown was the only, or even the most prominent, absentee. Oskar Lafontaine, Germany's Finance Minister, refused to break his family holiday and is thought to be sunning himself somewhere in Florida. His embarrassed deputy, Werner Muller, the Economic minister, was forced to explain. "Some six months ago," Mr Muller told a press conference, "the current finance minister booked a holiday in a very distant area with his wife and children and was not in a position to break it."As if to punish Mr Lafontaine for his absence, his fellow finance ministers indulged in a chorus of appreciation of his predecessor, Theo Waigel, praising his contribution to the birth of the euro.

Uniquely, the finance ministers' meeting was televised, signifying that the decisions had long since been taken, and allowing the politicians to concentrate on what they do best: outbidding each other in their rhetoric. France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn spoke of "an historic day for the European enterprise". Carlo Azeglio Ciampi of Italy, argued: "This is a milestone in Europe's history, a project which might, at times, have seemed Utopian." With a final flourish he added: "I am proud to call myself a European citizen born in Italy. That is how I feel today."

There was less euphoria from Charlie McCreevy, the Irish Finance Minister who had left his sick-bed. Suffering from a particularly virulent strain of 'flu Mr McCreevy joked that he was so doped it was fortunate that the signing ceremony did not involve a drug test. He added that monetary union was "a bit like an Irish marriage before the divorce referendum. Once you are in, you're in for life."

But rhetoric, rather than realism, was the order of the day and such was the sentiment of the occasion that there was even a heart-felt tribute to a senior Treasury mandarin. Sir Nigel Wicks has chaired the monetary committee that has been instrumental in the preparations for today's launch. To his evident embarrassment, finance ministers broke into a round of applause to salute his contribution.

The only ones displaying higher levels of excitement were the scores of eight-year-olds from European schools dressed in plastic capes and drafted in to release 3,000 blue and yellow balloons from the courtyard of EU headquarters at precisely 1.55pm local time, five minutes after the formal signing.

Jean Louis Fourmy, of the Brussels company that provided the balloons, said they symbolised prosperity rather than soaraway inflation as some sceptics had suggested. "Normally for celebrations we would let off 10,000 balloons, but we were only asked for 3,000. I think it's because they left it so late to organise," Mr Fourmy said. And some sources said there were only 2,900 balloons.

But the best image of the day came late on, as the ministers struggled to open the salmanazars, 9-litre bottles of Feuillate champagne from Epernay. Mysteriously, Commission officials drafted in the same brand that is drunk in the White House but had not investigated the logistics of prising open such large bottles. The clear winner was Wim Duisenberg, president of the European Central Bank, who was the first to pop his cork. At this particular moment in history Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, was still grappling with a pair of pliers.