and SARAH HELM
European finance ministers last night formally abandoned all hopes of creating a single European currency by 1997, and put off the target date until 1999.
In a clash with the European Commission, which warned against rejecting the 1997 date, the finance ministers bowed to growing disillusionment in European countries against an early move on monetary union.
The acknowledgement that 1997 is no longer realistic as a starting date for the single currency at the meeting in Luxembourg is likely to ease the pressure on John Major's leadership. Tory MPs are now seeking a firm commitment from the Prime Minister to reject a single currency in 1999 or face the threat of a challenge.
But Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, risked deepening the Tory divisions by suggesting that the single currency could be called the crown, the florin or the shilling.
The Chancellor's readiness to contemplate the creation of a single European currency will infuriate Tory Euro-sceptics and is likely to lead to a row in the Commons today when Mr Major faces questions.
The Luxembourg meeting sounded the death knell for the ecu, which figured in the Maastricht treaty. The ministers' declaration came in a green paper by the European Commission which is due to be studied by heads of government next week at the Cannes summit.
Mr Clarke told the ministers he wanted a national emblem on at least 20 per cent of one side, although there will also be a "common" side featuring a Euro symbol.
The Chancellor stood by the Government's approach to a single currency. He said there should be "strict" adherence to the need for convergence between national currencies in all key areas of economic activity before moving to a single currency. Economic convergence had to be lasting, he said.