France enhances role of eurozone finance ministers

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The Independent Online

France powered ahead yesterday with plans to strengthen the role of the 12 finance ministers of countries in the European single currency zone.

France powered ahead yesterday with plans to strengthen the role of the 12 finance ministers of countries in the European single currency zone.

The French Finance Minister, Laurent Fabius, whose government holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, unveiled a new format for their meetings, with regular press conferences, more administrative back-up and closer links.

Underlining France's desire for a change in gear on European integration, Mr Fabius moved to upgrade the so-called Euro-11 committee, yesterday renamed to take account of its increased membership. Now called the Euro group, the gathering, which includes ministers from all EU countries except Britain, Denmark and Sweden, was given a new place in the calendar of European meetings.

It will be served by new statistics designed to distinguish the single currency zone from the rest of the EU. The finance ministers plan to consultwhen necessary via a video-conferencing network.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, did not attend yesterday's meeting, claiming that preparations for today's public spending announcement prevented him travelling.

Britain has always been suspicious of the growing influence of the Euro-11 group, and initially fought for a seat at its meetings. It was excluded by a compromise ruling that decisions can be taken only when all 15 EU states are present at the full Ecofin meeting.

The letter of that deal will not be broken, but the Euro group will now have a regular dinner on the eve of routine EU finance ministers' meetings, followed by a morning media conference.

Chairing the first media conference of the Euro group, Mr Fabius said: "Everyone acknowledged that the credibility of the co-ordination of our policies requires this [higher] visibility and better co-ordination."

He denied any attempt to supplant the European Central Bank's control of inflation targeting; instead the emphasis will be on growth. The Euro group will not have a secretariat, but an official confirmed it would be able to call on the Council of Ministers' resources.

In a determined start to its six-month presidency, France secured a new investigation of regulation of EU securities markets. British doubts over setting up a committee to do this failed to head off a deal.

British officials said the Government, which refused to endorse the idea last week amid fears that it would lead to a Europe-wide regulatory framework for securities, had been satisfied by changes to the remit stressing the need for a "dynamic, competitive and innovative" market. However, Frits Bolkestein, European commissioner for the internal market, disputed claims that the group's activities would be circumscribed.

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