Amsterdam Summit: French fudge threatens euro launch

Just 24 hours after Europe's leaders patched up differences over the single currency, France signalled yesterday that the arguments over the euro rule book are far from over. Dominque Strauss-Kahn, the French finance minister, indicated that France will continue to push for a "flexible" interpretation of the Maastricht criteria.

Decisions on which countries meet Maastricht's crucial budget deficit rules, should be based on whether countries are "coming as close as possible" to the ceiling, set at three per cent of gross domestic product, he said.

Mr Strauss-Kahn's comments, at the EU's Amsterdam summit, are certain to fuel new fears in Bonn and London that France is seeking to "fudge" the Maastricht rules, as well as the rules of the German-designed "stability pact", which will enforce fiscal discipline after the euro launch.

Meanwhile, Pierre Moscovici, France's European affairs minister, sparked doubts about economic and monetary union for the second time in a week by saying in a radio interview that Paris would decide whether or not to join the euro after assessing public finances.

After hours of uncertainty, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's spokesman Manuel Valls told reporters in Amsterdam, that Mr Moscovici had spoken out of turn.

"He spoke too quickly. This is not an expression either of our political will or of a strategy," Mr Valls said. He said the position spelled out several times by Mr Jospin was that France would meet the criteria and deadline set to launch EMU in January 1999. "This will not be done to the detriment of employment and growth," he added.

Under the stability pact rules, any country which does not keep to the three per cent ceiling after the single currency launch becomes subject to near-automatic fines.

In a hard-fought deal, agreed at the Amsterdam in summit on Monday, France appeared to step back from confrontation with Bonn over the single currency discipline by agreeing, after all, to accept the "stability pact" with no changes.

Yesterday however, Mr Strauss-Khan destabilised the fragile new accord by stating in frankest terms yet heard from a European leader that the 3 per cent rules should not be precisely observed.

"The principle is to come close to 3 per cent. Countries must come as close as possible to three per cent and must show that they are on a trend towards three per cent even if they have not achieved it," he said.

Mr Strauss- Khan can rightly argue that the text of the Maastricht rules do allow for some flexible interpretation. However, to date, it has been largely taboo for Europe's leaders to suggest that they might fudge the final decision.

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