Alex Salmond delivered a whole-hearted defence of the euro yesterday and predicted that Scotland would successfully flourish if the country cut its ties with sterling and embraced the European single currency.

Speaking to an audience at one of Brussels' most influential think tanks - the Centre for European Policy Studies - the SNP leader described the pound as ''a millstone round Scotland's neck'' and challenged the euro's supporters to launch a more aggressive debate against the new currency's critics.

''I think that being outside the euro area is already penalising the Scottish economy. In the medium-term, the longer we stay out, the more damage will accumulate. The euro is an example of why Scotland needs membership status so that it can take a decision on entry into the single currency,'' he said.

The strong pound and the Government's priority of an ''economic policy made in the south-east of England by the south-east of England and for the south-east of England'', he claimed, were under-

mining the Scottish economy with its tradition of exports.

''Scotland is a trading nation and our main trading partner is the EU. At present, over 60% of our manufactured exports are to the EU and it is to Europe that we must look to secure Scottish prosperity and Scottish jobs,'' he told his audience of European officials and diplomats.

The SNP leader quoted a recent Scottish Council for Development and Industry survey of Scottish exporters which revealed that 87% of all businesses surveyed said they were being badly hit by the value of the pound, that 69% had lost exports and a third had had to lay off staff.

Mr Salmond was equally critical of the Scottish Executive's attendance record at EU Council of Ministers' meetings since the Parliament was established. Pointing to just one appearance by a Scottish minister - John Home Robertson at a fisheries council - out of 30 such gatherings, he promised: ''If I was the First Minister of Scotland, we would pursue a more vigorous role towards attending Council of Ministers' meetings.''

The SNP leader, who had a brief meeting with the most senior commission official dealing with monetary union, Giovanni Ravasio, was not the only leading UK politician in Brussels yesterday.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, John Maples, also crossed the Channel to mark the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Criticising the EU for failing to integrate the countries of central and eastern Europe, he accused the commission president, Romano Prodi, of being ''obsessed with integration and harmonisation''.

In contrast, Mr Maples offered an alternative Tory view of the Union: ''an outward-looking, free trade, low tax, low regulation Europe that would be highly competitive and able to respond quickly and creatively to the challenges of the new global business environment''.