The European Union began the process of breathing life into the long-awaited single currency Friday when finance ministers designated 11 countries to join in a new monetary union.

The European Parliament and EU leaders will confirm that choice on Saturday, taking a giant step in the quest for stronger European unity.The euro, as the new money will be known, is of far more significance than merely binding European economies. The 11 countries participating in this venture will be inextricably linking their destinies for the 21st century.

"The recommendation of the Council is that 11 member states ... fulfill the necessary conditions for economic and monetary union," said British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, chairman of the finance ministers meeting. He called it "the beginning of a new era for Europe."

Recommended for single currency membership are Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Britain, Sweden and Denmark have chosen to remain out, at least for the time being, and Greece was unable to meet entry criteria.

"The Europeans have transformed a vision into reality," EU Commission President Jacques Santer told reporters. "It will change the destiny of our union."

The ministers made their decision in a brief, two-hour meeting that preceded Saturday's EU summit.

The ministers will meet again Saturday, after the summit, to take care of some remaining matters, such as fixing exchange rates among existing currencies and making recommendations for membership on the board of the new European Central Bank.

Fixing the exchange rates means the currencies of participating countries - German marks, Italian lire, Spanish pesetas, Dutch guilders, Austrian shillings, Irish punts, Finnish markkas, Portuguese escudos and French, Belgian and Luxembourg francs - will rise and fall together on exchange markets.

Casting a pall over what should be a joyous occasion was the bitter wrangling between France and Germany over the presidency of the ECB, a problem many thought was resolved a year ago.