Date proposed for countries to join Emu second wave

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Speculation intensified yesterday that countries which do not join the first wave of monetary union in 1999 may be offered informal guarantees of membership by 2002.

The idea of a "second wave" could appeal to a future Labour government, given recent statements from Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, suggesting that Labour might wish to join the single currency after 1999, if it proves successful.

The fallback date of 2002 is a convenient new deadline, given that euro notes and coins are due to start circulating in that year. Germany, France, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and possibly Ireland and Belgium are candidates for the "first wave". The "second wave" idea is being canvassed on the Continent as a means of defusing the political ructions which will inevitably erupt, in countries such as Italy and Spain, if they are rejected from the first wave, because they have failed to meet the economic rules. However, formal comment on the idea is hard to come by, as all planners, in Brussels and other capitals, fear that discussion of a "second wave" could undermine confidence in the entire project.

It is thought unlikely that either Italy or Spain will qualify for entry in 1999. Germany, in particular, is keen to keep both countries out, as their currencies could be seen to weaken the euro.

However, their governments have staked their reputations on making the deadline. They have also called for big sacrifices in public spending and promised their voters that the pain will pay off when they join in the 1999 launch. If Germany and France only narrowly meet the economic criteria themselves - as now seems likely - it will be hard for them to bar entry to other states without facing accusations of elitism. A framework for a phased approach to reassure latecomers that their membership of the club is assured within three years is therefore viewed as possible way of defusing a divisive row.

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