Summit seeks to push aside EMU doubts

Single currency: Conflicting views on timetable to be addressed amid fears among member states over economic effects
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The Independent Online
European leaders, meeting today in Madrid, will proclaim a new determination to halt the mounting wave of doubt about a single currency, and attempt to map out a clearer path towards EU reform and enlargement.

The resolutions and rhetoric, however, are unlikely to mask the deep uncertainty about Europe's future, brought into sharp focus by unrest in France, and by the continued failure of the leaders to agree a common vision about the shape of the union, or its timetable for expansion to the east.

The summit is certain to be marked again by British attempts to slow down further integration. John Major is expected to issue strong warnings about the threat to the union if a hard core of countries should move towards a single currency, leaving other member-states on the outside.

France and Germany have attempted to agree a common agenda for Madrid in recent weeks. However, they too have scaled down their ambitions as public opinion has turned against them. Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, has a fight on to convince the German public of the benefits of the single currency, and he knows that his dream of European political and monetary union will shatter if France cannot overcome its present wave of strife.

The underlying tensions will inhibit the leaders in their attempts to set out clear objectives for next year's "Maastricht II" rolling conference on European reform, due to open in Turin, under the Italian presidency, in March.

Despite the sense of deep uncertainty, Spain will be hoping to round off its six-month presidency with a range of important decisions. Suggestions that the start date for monetary union - slated for 1 January 1999 - should be delayed will be once again rejected.

Leaders are hoping to prove their faith in the project by finally deciding on a name for the currency, which is widely expected to be the Euro.

Britain, embarrassed by decisions to name the currency before the Government has committed itself to join EMU, is expected to take a back-seat in the discussions, but officials said this week: "We can live with the Euro."

Important decisions on the timetable for the transition to monetary union will also be finalised in Madrid. In particular, France and Germany are expected to decide on the date for a decision on which member-states have passed the qualifying tests. The date is likely to be set for early 1998, based on economic results for 1997.

Mr Major will renew his calls for a far-reaching study into the destabilising effects of creating a two-speed Europe, in which a group of countries, led by France and Germany, join monetary union without properly assessing their relationship with countries outside. British concerns have been heightened by Franco-German insistence that their progress towards integration will not be held up by slower member-states.

At Madrid the Government is expected to speak about the danger of a new hard-core voting block within the EU, which British officials warned this week could have a "dramatic" effect on all policy-making. Mr Major is expected to voice fears about the effect that a hard-core, voting as bloc inside the EU, would have on a range of political decisions. If such a voting bloc were to form, one senior official said, it would raise questions about whether the EU could still be called the EU.

Also on the table at Madrid will be the report of a six-month study into reform options for next year's Inter-Governmental Conference. Britain's isolation on the veto question is certain to be exposed as leaders discuss plans for taking in new members from Eastern and Central Europe.

Leading article, page 18