EU leaders open door to fast-track euro membership

2nd March 2009, Comments 0 comments

For the first time, several EU leaders are considering the possibility of fast-track membership of the eurozone, while relaxing tough rules for adopting the currency.

Brussels -- Several EU leaders on Sunday opened the door for the first time to the possibility of fast-track membership of the eurozone, while ruling out a relaxation of the tough rules for adopting the currency.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after an EU summit in Brussels that the bloc "could consider" accelerating the candidacy process and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "the debate is open".

Likewise, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, said he was willing "to calmly discuss" such a possibility.

Until now, procedures for adopting the euro had been treated as sacrosanct and tweaking them had been firmly out of question.

However, with eastern European countries casting around for an anchor of stability amid the financial crisis, Hungary and Poland have floated the idea of fast-track membership.

"We have to accelerate the process of joining the eurozone," Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany told journalists ahead of the summit.

While euro candidate countries should be required to meet all the tough economic conditions for adopting the currency, he said they should not be forced to wait at least two years before joining the bloc, as they are now.

EU countries aspiring to adopt the euro usually have to respect five tough economic criteria, requiring them to keep their deficits and debt down, their currencies stable, long-term interest rates in line with targets and inflation under control in a sustainable way.

The rules specifically require euro hopeful countries to keep their currency's exchange rate from fluctuating more than 15 percent against the euro over at least two years.

While open to considering reducing the two-year period, Merkel said: "I think that the criteria should remain."

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said that while there was no question of quickly changing the euro accession rulebook, leaders acknowledged the requirements should take better account of economic conditions.

"We said that we could have a discussion as to whether the rules are too soft in the times when the economy is booming and too strict in times when we are in more difficulty," said Topolanek, whose country holds the EU's presidency.

"I don't think that anybody who was there as a head of state or government accepted the idea of changing the rules at the moment."

So far, Slovenia and Slovakia are the only former communist members of the 27-nation European Union to have also met all the criteria for adopting the euro.

Lithuania had hoped to adopt the currency in 2007 before the economic crisis reared its head, but was rejected because its inflation was barely over the required limit.

Many EU countries in eastern Europe have had to roll back their plans to adopt the euro as they struggle to stabilise their economies in the face of recessions that have made meeting the criteria all but impossible.

AFP / Expatica

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