What to Name a Currency For Europe Eludes the EU

WHAT'S in a name? For the European Union, it can mean unity - or something less.

After a weekend meeting, top EU finance officials remained divided on what to name the single European currency planned for 1999.

The French prefer the ''Monnet,'' after Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of European unity.

Germany would like it to be the ''Euro,'' with each country tacking on the name of its existing currency. Thus in Germany it would be known as the Euro-mark and in Britain the Euro-pound.

European Commission President Jacques Santer would like it to be the ''Ecu,'' an acronym of European currency unit.

The dispute is just one of many that EU officials tried to settle in a meeting in Valencia, Spain.

''Trying to sell the single currency when it doesn't have a name is like trying to sell a car without saying what it is called,'' said Yves-Thibault de Silguy, EU commissioner for monetary affairs.

Nigel Weeks, British head of the EU's currency committee, says a single currency must not have a name with ''unpleasant or unwelcome historical connections.'' It has to be ''short and easy to pronounce'' and must ''contain a reference to Europe.''

So far, ''Euro'' appears to be the favorite.

At the meeting, the finance ministers repeated that the deadline for economic and monetary union was Jan. 1, 1999, and laid out steps to achieve it. But several of the 15 member states, including Britain, say they will probably not join in.

EU officials concede that even France may fail to satisfy the criteria for joining a single currency.

Italian Prime Minister Lamberto Dini complained that German Finance Minister Theo Waigel had said Italy would not qualify by 1999. Mr. Dini, who doubles as his country's finance minister, pointedly left early.

A week earlier, Britain's Prime Minister John Major warned that the quarreling over a single currency was like ''fiddling while Europe burns.''

''Few - perhaps very few - EU states will be ready to take part in a single currency by 1999,'' Mr. Major said. There was a prospect that the EU would have an ''inner core'' sharing a single currency and an ''outer ring'' excluded from the arrangement, he said.

Once that happened, Major said, there would be a ''fundamental change in the nature of the EU.''

The plan for a single currency received a further blow when Sweden's Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson confirmed that his country would not join in except with the support of the Swedish parliament. Sweden's political parties are currently split on the issue.

Under the 1991 Maastricht Treaty, all EU members, except Britain, are committed to achieving a single European currency by the end of 1999. The treaty is scheduled for review next year.

HAVING a single currency would make trading easier between European nations. But two problems lie in the way.

Before joining a single currency, EU countries will have to demonstrate low inflation, small budget deficits, and tight control over public debt.

It was on this question of criteria that German Finance Minister Waigel raised doubts not only about Italy's prospects of joining, but Belgium's and Holland's as well.

Doubts about French participation have also grown. France's public debt is huge, and Pierre Lelouche, President Jacques Chirac's foreign affairs adviser, says that debt will have to be greatly reduced before the country meets the criteria for joining the union.

The second problem is the strength of the German currency in relation to those of other EU members. A senior British official says: ''There are signs that Germany wants to use its muscle and that is creating genuine disquiet.''

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