Cook pledge to ease passage of single currency

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The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said yesterday that the Government, which holds the EU presidency in the first half of next year, would do "everything in its power" to make sure the single currency gets off to a sound start "whether we are part of it or not".

Mr Cook also said in an interview with Le Monde that Britain should join Economic Monetary Union if it proves to be a success. His comments echoed remarks that he made earlier this year but they represented a warmer attitude to EMU than the Labour position in the election campaign.

He went on, broadly, to back the French position in the debate on post- EMU management of the European eco- nomy. If there is a single currency, with a central bank deciding monetary policy, Mr Cook said, the powers of EU finance ministers should be reinforced, to allow a matching economic strategy devoted to "employment and growth". This is the argument deployed by Paris and supported by other EU countries, but resisted by Bonn.

The Foreign Secretary said EMU raised difficult financial and economic questions for Britain. It was not "appropriate" at this stage to speculate on when the Government might put the question of membership to the British people. The possibility of a referendum before the 1999 launch date had not been excluded but, with 18 months to go, it would have a serious impact on the Government's crowded timetable of priorities.

Mr Cook also refused to comment on 2002 - the year when euro notes and coins begin to circulate - as a possible British target date. But he added: "If the single currency is launched, and if it is a success, I have already said, that, in the long term, Britain should join."

His comments, and other European actions and words by the new Government, drew an approving editorial from Le Monde: "Great Britain is no longer kicking for touch. It wants to play in the middle of the European field." The most important clue to the changed attitude across the Channel was Mr Cook's statement that he would do all in his power, as EU council president next year, to ensure the success of EMU.

The odds for Europe's single currency starting on time in 1999 have improved over the past month and optimism among commentators has rarely been higher for a core launch group of six countries, a Reuters survey showed yesterday.

An exclusive poll of the views of 49 economists and political analysts across Europe gave an average likelihood of 82 per cent that EMU would start on time in January 1999, compared with an average rating of 80 percent in April.